Obama Denounces Pastor, Continuing Circular Firing Squad
Barack Obama has denounced his pastor of twenty years, the man who performed his wedding ceremony, baptized his children, and served as the inspiration for his best-selling book, because his inflammatory comments got picked up in the press and caused him some political embarrassment.
In the handful of years Senator Barack Obama has spent in the national spotlight, his stance toward his pastor has gone from glowing praise to growing distance to — as of Friday — strong criticism. On Friday, Mr. Obama called a grab bag of statements by his longtime minister, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., “inflammatory and appalling.” “I reject outright the statements by Rev. Wright that are at issue,” he wrote in a campaign statement that was his strongest in a series of public disavowals of his pastor’s views over the past year.
Earlier in the week, several television stations played clips in which Mr. Wright, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, referred to the United States as the “U.S. of K.K.K. A.” and said the Sept. 11 attacks were a result of corrupt American foreign policy. On Friday, Senator John McCain’s campaign forwarded to reporters an article in The Wall Street Journal in which Mr. Wright was quoted as saying, “Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run,” and accusing the United States of importing drugs, exporting guns and training murderers. Later in the day, Rush Limbaugh dwelled on Mr. Wright in his radio program, calling him “a race-baiter and a hatemonger.”
In the statement he released a few hours later, Mr. Obama, known for his uplifting messages about national unity, professed a certain innocence about his pastor’s most incendiary messages. “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation,” he said.
Mr. Wright, 66, who last month fulfilled longstanding plans to retire, is a beloved figure in African-American Christian circles and a frequent guest in pulpits around the country. Since he arrived at Trinity in 1972, he has built a 6,000-member congregation through his blunt, charismatic preaching, which melds detailed scriptural analysis, black power, Afrocentrism and an emphasis on social justice; Mr. Obama praised the last quality in Friday’s statement.
His most powerful influence, said several ministers and scholars who have followed his career, is black liberation theology, which interprets the Bible as a guide to combating oppression of African-Americans. He attracts audiences because of, not in spite of, his outspoken critiques of racism and inequality, said Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, in an interview last year.
In the interview last spring, Mr. Wright expressed frustration at the breach in relationship with Mr. Obama, saying the candidate had already privately said that he might need to distance himself from his pastor. But perhaps the two could repair things, said Mr. Wright, pointing out that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, had faced worse. “At least there are no semen stains on any dresses,” Mr. Wright said, one of several digs he has taken at the Clintons. “That kind of frankness scares people in the campaign,” he added.
Wright strikes me as a nut but Obama’s pretense at being shocked by his rhetoric at this point is shameful. One doesn’t throw friends and mentors under the bus for the sake of convenience.
My strong sense is that Obama does indeed reject most of the outlandish things that Wright says for much the same reason that I do: Educated people who grew up in the post-segregation era simply think differently. My guess — and it’s just that — is that Obama was able to sit in Wright’s pews and reject the hateful framing of issues because he understood that black men of a certain age harbor a deep distrust of white society. One presumes, too, that the railing against whitey was a relatively small part of the message and that Wright preached it as part of a larger message of self-reliance and the need to take care of one another.
I understand why Obama felt he needed to distance himself from Wright, just as he needed to do so with Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton had to with Geraldine Ferraro. There’s a certain ruthless discipline that’s required of executive leaders and one doesn’t want subordinates to derail the focus on the larger mission. Personal loyalty can go too far, as President Bush has aptly demonstrated, but it’s also admirable.
I’m in full agreement with James Carville on this one: This game of “political hari-kiri” needs to stop.
The problem is that calls for resignation are becoming cries of “wolf” in US politics today. Every time one campaign’s surrogate says something mildly offensive about the other candidate, resignation calls are swift.
This sort of hyper-sensitivity diminishes everyone who engages in it, both the candidates and the media. Politics is a rough and tumble business, and yet there seems to be an effort by the commentariat to sanitise American politics to some type of high-level Victorian debating society.
It is not the attacks that are unprecedented; it is the shocked reaction to them. I think back to the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, in which I played a role. The morning after the New Hampshire primary, Paul Begala, my colleague, began belittling the victory of Senator Paul Tsongas by arguing that Mr Clinton’s comeback was a much bigger story. In doing so, Mr Begala called Mr Tsongas a “son of a bitch”. Mr Clinton asked him to write an apology note but also requested that it not affect his aggressiveness. The story lasted one day.
Later in the campaign, my then girlfriend and now wife Mary Matalin called my client “a philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger”. Naturally, someone made a perfunctory call for her to resign which got nowhere, and we all got a good laugh and moved on.
Near the end of that campaign, George H.W. Bush, the president, boldly asserted of Mr Clinton and Al Gore that “my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos”. Thank God nobody asked Mr Bush to resign. Life as we knew it went along quite nicely because it was all part of that entertaining, rough and tumble endeavour we know as politics.
It has always been that way. In the late 1950s, Earl Long, the then governor of my home state of Louisiana and in my view its most courageous politician since the second world war, referred to one of his political enemies as “nothing but a little pissant”. Or consider the election of 1828, in which surrogates for John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson’s wife a bigamist and his mother a prostitute. And that was before television.
Maybe somebody should have resigned for that. But that is where we have lost perspective. Some comments are within bounds, while some are not. But by whining about every little barb, candidates are trying to win the election through a war of staff resignation attrition and Americans are losing the ability to distinguish between what is fair game and what is not.
Politics is a messy business, but campaigning prepares you for governing. It prepares you to get hit, stand strong and, if necessary, hit back. So our candidates need to buck up, toughen up and recognise that time spent whining and sniping is time not spent addressing the real concerns of the people.
Barring some radical happenings between now and November, I’m not going to be voting for Barack Obama. But I’d have been perfectly happy had he come out and said, “I’ve known Jeremiah Wright for twenty years and love him like a father. He’s a good man who says some things that I strongly disagree with but he’s preaching larger truths that I applaud.” Or, “Samantha Power is a brilliant woman who said something stupid in the heat of battle. Neither she nor I think Hillary Clinton is a ‘monster.’ I’d be proud to have her in my administration.”
Smart, decent people occasionally say dumb, hurtful things. Do we really want to limit public service to people who have never said anything interesting?