Parting With the Pastor

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

LAST MONTH, during a speech on race in Philadelphia, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) repudiated "in unequivocal terms" the explosive sound bites from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., without denouncing him or repudiating their long relationship. In a confident address that discussed in an effective and intelligent way the impact of race on American life, Mr. Obama sought to put the rights and wrongs of the Rev. Wright into understandable historical context.

Yesterday was a different story. A downbeat Mr. Obama announced at a hastily convened news conference in North Carolina: "The person I saw [Monday] was not the person that I met 20 years ago." Forcefully breaking from the Rev. Wright, Mr. Obama said: "The insensitivity and the outrageousness of the statements shocked me and surprised me." He added that they contradict "everything that I'm about and who I am."

We didn't join the renewed and growing chorus calling on Mr. Obama to renounce the Rev. Wright after the minister's all-about-me rant at the National Press Club on Monday, but the candidate's motivation is pretty obvious. The Rev. Wright praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, said it was plausible that AIDS was a genocidal tool of the U.S. government to kill African Americans and proclaimed that attacks on him were an attack on the black church. He also delivered a deliberate poke in the eye to his former parishioner, suggesting that Mr. Obama's conciliatory Philadelphia speech was nothing but politics. With each defiant utterance Monday, the Rev. Wright dug a deeper political hole for Mr. Obama.

Did Mr. Obama climb out of that hole yesterday? It seems to us that the whole sorry episode raises legitimate questions about his judgment. Given the long and close relationship between Mr. Obama and the Rev. Wright, voters will ask: How could Mr. Obama have been surprised by the Rev. Wright's views? How could he not have seen this coming? Mr. Obama didn't help matters much by initially seeming to dismiss the furor building over the Rev. Wright's Washington performance, just as he did with the initial uproar last month. At a media availability at an airport Monday afternoon, he displayed none of the anger and sorrow that etched his face in North Carolina one day later.

But Mr. Obama is right when he says that his entire career is antithetical to the divisiveness of the Rev. Wright's comments. We've found things to cheer and things to criticize about Mr. Obama during this long campaign, but we don't see how anyone could question his commitment to transcending old racial battles and finding common ground. The Rev. Wright doesn't speak for the candidate, and we hope the pastor doesn't become a continuing excuse for political ads built on racial fears.

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