WaPo : Obama Strikes Back, Denouncing Wright

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Obama Strikes Back, Denouncing Wright

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama had some tough words for his former pastor in Winston-Salem, N.C., a week before the state's May 6 primary. (Associated Press)

By Peter Slevin | April 29, 2008

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Sen. Barack Obama today strongly criticized the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor, saying that Wright's comments about the United States in recent days have been "destructive" and "outrageous."

Using his sharpest language yet to describe a series of Wright performances that he said left him angry and sad, Obama accused Wright of exploiting racial divisions at the same time the Illinois senator is aiming to bring the nation together.

"When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it," Obama told reporters in firm and somber tones. "It contradicts everything that I'm about and who I am. And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign is about I think will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country."

Obama, calling reporters together for the second time in 24 hours to address an issue that threatens to weaken his campaign, said he decided to speak out after watching videotape of Wright's theatrical performance on Monday at the National Press Club, where he attacked the U.S. government and Obama alike. Wright "caricatured himself," Obama said. "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. "To insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings. 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 went on. "I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday."

Obama said he had not spoken in several weeks with Wright, who retired earlier this year as pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ and a mainstream congregation thousands strong. Wright performed Obama's marriage, baptized his two daughters and inspired the title of his latest book, "The Audacity of Hope."

"There has been great damage," Obama said. "I do not see the relationship being the same after this."

Wright's strongly worded sermons were little known in political circles before Obama ran for president. He first drew attention on the day in February 2007 when Obama announced his candidacy because the candidate disinvited him from delivering a benediction, saying later that he did not want Wright to suffer the inevitable media attention.

The minister became a serious problem only after Obama had become the Democratic front-runner. In the weeks before the April 22 Pennsylvania primary, news outlets broadcast excerpts from fiery Wright sermons that critics charged were anti-American and racist.

Obama said he had not heard the most dramatic sermons. He denounced some of Wright's most inflammatory remarks and followed up with an ambitious speech on race relations in Philadelphia, where he also sought to put Wright's views and comments in perspective. Obama said 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 a NAACP speech in Detroit on Sunday and a press conference at the National Press Club on Monday morning.

Obama told reporters after a Winston-Salem rally that he was troubled by many aspects of Wright's recent performances, 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 war on terrorism.

"After seeing Rev. 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," Obama said. "It now is the time for us not to get distracted."

"What mattered to him," Obama said, "was him commanding center stage."

Obama, who met Wright almost 20 years ago and joined Trinity United in 1992, disputed assertions that Wright was his "spiritual mentor." He described Wright as his pastor and a man "who provided valuable contributions to our family." He said the Wright who spoke to the press club "is not the person I knew for 20 years."

"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's wartime efforts with terrorism; there are no excuses. They offend me. They rightly offend all Americans."

He also said Wright's comments "were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe they also end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church."

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 Rev. 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."