By Peter Slevin and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C., April 29 -- Using his sharpest language yet, Sen. Barack Obama strived to distance himself further from his former longtime pastor on Tuesday, calling the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.'s comments about the United States "outrageous" and "destructive."
Laboring to contain damage to his presidential candidacy, Obama said Wright's recent appearances had left him angry and sad. He accused his spiritual mentor of exploiting racism and "giving comfort to those who prey on hate" at a time when the Illinois Democrat is vowing to bring the nation together. And he strongly took issue with some of the pastor's more controversial remarks.
"When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS, when he suggests Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, when he equates the United States' wartime efforts with terrorism -- there are no excuses," Obama said. "They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans."
Obama's comments, delivered at a news conference here, were his firmest effort to shake the negative reaction to Wright's statements, particularly among Democratic superdelegates and white working-class voters, two constituencies he needs in his battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the party's nomination. He spoke just seven days before important primaries in North Carolina and Indiana.
Clinton and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, have suggested that Obama's association with Wright, the former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago who inspired his Christian faith and officiated at his wedding, raises questions about his judgment and values.
Obama's latest denunciation of Wright came as many of his black supporters, sensing potential damage to his candidacy, expressed dismay about the pastor's widely quoted statements made Monday at the National Press Club in Washington. On black-oriented political blogs, on radio shows that appeal mainly to an African American audience and in general conversation, black supporters of Obama expressed a gnawing worry that Wright's bombastic comments could seriously threaten the White House bid of the first black candidate with a real chance of winning.
"I was, like, what is this guy doing?" Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony Williams, an Obama supporter, said as he watched Wright bob and weave on television like a welterweight as he answered questions at the press club. Georgetown University professor Christopher Chambers, another Obama supporter, thought, "This is a disaster." Commenting on the blog Jack and Jill Politics, which says it offers "the black bourgeois perspective on American politics," Chambers assessed Obama's chances of beating Clinton in two words: "Game over."
As Peter Allison, another Obama supporter, sat transfixed in the glow of his television, watching Wright at the press club, he said he felt like a man witnessing a train wreck. "I wanted to leave, and I didn't want to leave," said Allison, of Durham, N.C. ". . . He was killing the guy."
At a meeting of black religious leaders at the Howard University School of Divinity on Tuesday, Wright declined to address the firestorm that his remarks had ignited. "You heard what I said [Monday] morning," he told a reporter. "I just wish that the media would focus on more of what they are saying in there, because they are trying to make this about me and Barack."
Several of Wright's supporters spoke up for him at the university event. Cheryl Sanders, a professor of Christian ethics at the school, said that it would be wrong for him to remain silent in the face of what she called American oppression. "The role of the minister is to represent the will of God to the people," she said. "The priestly minister is accountable to God and to the people. The politicians do not have that same realm of responsibility."
Wright's strongly worded sermons were little known in political circles before Obama began running for president. The pastor, disinvited from giving the benediction when Obama announced his candidacy, became a serious problem for the campaign shortly before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, when news outlets broadcast excerpts that critics considered anti-American and racist.
Obama said he had not heard the most dramatic sermons. He denounced some of Wright's stormiest remarks and gave an ambitious speech on race relations. He had aimed to put Wright's views in context. He said Tuesday that he was giving Wright, who had prayed with him and inspired him, the benefit of the doubt.
In the weeks that followed, Wright said little. But he surfaced very publicly late last week, explaining himself in a lengthy PBS interview and declaiming boldly in an NAACP speech in Detroit on Sunday and at the press club on Monday.
Obama said he was troubled by many aspects of Wright's recent appearances, including his decision "to command the stage for three or four consecutive days in the midst of this major debate" about such issues as health care, education, energy, economic policy and the fight against terrorism.
"After seeing Reverend Wright's performance, I felt there was a complete disregard for what the American people are going through and the need for them to rally together to solve these problems," he said. "What mattered to him was him commanding center stage."
The news conference was Obama's second on the subject within 24 hours -- he said he had not learned of Wright's most incendiary remarks until Tuesday.
"I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That's in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding," Obama said. "That's who I am. That's what I believe. That's what this campaign has been about. Yesterday, we saw a very different vision of America."
Obama said he was "particularly angered" by Wright's allegation that the candidate was engaging in political posturing when he denounced the minister's earlier remarks.
"If Reverend Wright considers that political posturing, then he doesn't know me very well," Obama said. "Based on his comments yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought, either."
Fears reported from Washington. Staff writer Hamil R. Harris in Washington contributed to this report.