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Obama's Misplay

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, May 1, 2008

"That is just terrible, absolutely dreadful," a prominent supporter of Barack Obama said Monday morning after listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's screed at the National Press Club. He proposed to me that the presidential candidate at long last must denounce his former pastor, unequivocally and immediately. It took 28 hours after a tepid early reaction Monday, but Obama finally did it Tuesday afternoon.

Did that solve Obama's pastor problem? Leading Democrats certainly hope so, but they are not sure. His vulnerability transcends relations with a radical preacher. If Obama comes to be seen not as a presidential candidate who happens to be black but as a black candidate in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he will face a difficult struggle in the general election against John McCain even if he bests Hillary Clinton.

The problem goes back to the reaction Obama and his strategist David Axelrod crafted about two months ago, when videos of Wright's racist sermons first circulated. Insisting that Wright's incendiary remarks had been taken out of context, Obama took the high road in delivering a widely praised speech on race March 18 in Philadelphia. The issue surfaced again, however, at the widely criticized April 16 Democratic debate, leading Obama to rule out further debates with Clinton. The Obama campaign thought the pastor problem had been put to bed until Wright went on his little road tour.

Obama's danger is being perceived by white voters as representing a hostile, separate culture. My friend Armstrong Williams, the African American conservative, told me, "It is not unusual to hear in many black churches the same language that Reverend Wright is being criticized for." I raised this with NPR reporter and Fox commentator Juan Williams (no relation to Armstrong). "Not at all," replied Williams, who also is African American. "It's ridiculous. I never have heard that in church."

Wright's demagoguery is so unusual in Juan Williams's view that it was necessary for Obama to separate himself from it two months ago. Instead of orating about race in America, Williams says, Obama should have repented as a "sinner" partaking of lies from the pulpit. It was a post-partisan, post-racial opportunity lost by the candidate.

Although the Obama camp feared the worst when Wright went on the road last weekend, the preacher was restrained during his first two stops. Bill Moyers (an ordained Baptist minister) was polite on his PBS program, and Wright reciprocated. He raised his level addressing an NAACP fundraiser in Detroit, but that performance was sufficiently restrained to win commendations even from Clinton supporters. Not until the question-and-answer period at the National Press Club did Wright go wild, playing to a raucous black audience.

Obama adviser Susan Rice, appearing on MSNBC immediately after the press club spectacle, was visibly unhappy as she disavowed any responsibility for Wright. Soon after, while campaigning in Wilmington, N.C., Obama hardly seemed exercised about Wright, saying merely, "He does not speak for me." Advisers then urged the candidate to react more firmly.

He did so the next day, in Winston-Salem, N.C., calling Wright's performance "divisive and destructive." But Wright's anti-American slanders at the press club were only a repetition of sermons that had not aroused such a disavowal. The difference was that with every word Monday heard over national cable television, Obama no longer could slough off the preacher's words as having been taken out of context.

Over the past two years, Obama on occasion has appeared with Wright and praised him as a valued counselor and dear friend of the family. The title of his best-selling book "The Audacity of Hope" is from a Wright sermon. But Obama on Tuesday summarily dismissed the man who used to be his spiritual mentor as a "pastor," just as Wright had dismissed him as a "politician."

Nobody knows whether Obama's performance has damaged his candidacy permanently, but his supporters hope the issue is out of the news. The difficulty is that Jeremiah Wright, thrown under the bus by his former parishioner, can reemerge any time he wishes and renew discussion of the Democratic presidential front-runner's real identity.

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My April 28 column erred in saying that Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic delegate, was the priest who gave Communion to pro-choice politicians during the recent papal Mass in Washington.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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