IHT : Pakistani Parliament opens with a power shift

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama camp caught up in minister's controversial remarks

By Brian Knowlton and Jodi Kantor | March 17, 2008

WASHINGTON: Senator Barack Obama was struggling Monday to contain a growing storm over incendiary comments by the former minister of his Chicago church, and he planned to deliver a major speech Tuesday to try to put the matter behind him.

As political blogs and cable television continued to air remarks by the minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., saying, "God damn America" and suggesting that the country bore some blame for the attacks of Sept. 11, Obama moved forcibly to distance himself. In a message to the liberal Huffington Post blog, he wrote, "I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy."

Aides said Obama would speak Tuesday in Philadelphia about both Wright and how race has played out in the campaign. Obama is trying not just to distance himself from the minister's more provocative statements, but to keep his political opponents from defining him on their terms to a country that is still getting to know him.

The flap has also raised questions about faith and patriotism. Obama - who has been criticized even for not wearing an American flag lapel pin - has rarely bid farewell to an audience on the campaign trail the way he did on Monday. "God bless you and God bless America!" he told the crowd in Monaca, Pennsylvania.

So this has become a potentially reputation-defining moment for a candidate who, for all of his impressive electoral victories, is still an unknown quantity to many Americans. And it presages the kinds of attacks that Obama would likely face in a general election - a setting in which Republicans have succeeded in portraying Democrats as unpatriotic.

The Wright affair "makes me question other things," said Karen Norton, 58, a computer saleswoman in North Carolina, which holds its primary May 6. "What else do we not know?"

Obama might be able to ride out a subcontroversy over whether he was actually in the pew of his Chicago church when Wright made the "God damn America" remarks; Obama has denied it, and news video shows him in Florida that day. Still, his close relationship to Wright over many years complicate his efforts to detach himself.

Wright married the Obamas and baptized their two daughters. The title of one of Obama's books, "The Audacity of Hope," came from a Wright sermon.

Some supporters emphasized the degree of separation and argued against guilt by association. But critics contended that the embrace was too close to deny persuasively.

"Obama is meant to be the man who transcends the divisions of race, the candidate who doesn't damn America but 'heals' it," the conservative commentator Mark Steyn wrote on National Review Online. "Yet, since his early 20s he's sat week after week listening to the ravings of just another cookie-cutter race huckster."

Some Democrats said they hoped Obama's clear denunciation of Wright's comments would help put the controversy behind him. But others questioned Obama's judgment in not distancing himself sooner from Wright, who was part of the candidate's spiritual advisory committee until Friday.

A top Obama adviser acknowledged that even a year ago the campaign was aware that Wright could pose a problem.

When Obama announced his presidential candidacy on Feb. 10, 2007, a decision was made not to include Wright, who had been expected to lead an invocation, The Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

"There was no doubt that there was controversy surrounding him," the newspaper quoted David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, as saying Sunday. He added that "we didn't want to expose him" or "make him the target and a distraction on a day when Senator Obama was going to announce his candidacy."

Obama has faced questions about Wright for more than a year, but in the past week cable news shows and Internet blogs have been circulating some of the outspoken pastor's more controversial statements. Wright has accused the United States of being fundamentally racist and the government of being corrupt and murderous.

The injection of race into the campaign has been a two-edged sword. It appears to have cost Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton considerable support among blacks, long a mainstay of her and her husband's political strength. But Clinton also appears to have done significantly better among white males in the big-state primaries of Ohio and Texas.

Among the comments from Wright that have drawn the most attention are these: "The government gives them [blacks] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strikes law and then wants us to sing 'God bless America.' No, no, no, not 'God bless America.' God damn America." He added: "God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human."

And: "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye . . . America's chickens are coming home to roost."

Jodi Kantor reported from New York.