Barack Obama says he has not suggested to his recently retired pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that he retreat from the national stage and stay behind the scenes in Chicago until the end of presidential primary season—if not beyond. Not even privately? Though Obama's top aide said today that Wright's re-emergence is "not helpful," his staff declined to comment further.
But with just a week to go before crucial primaries in Indiana and North Carolina and Obama locked in a tight battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, most in his camp would no doubt consider Wright's silence golden.
However, Wright's commanding, unapologetic, and at times confrontational appearance before a friendly and boisterous crowd early today at the National Press Club made clear that Obama's fiery former pastor who built Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago into an 8,000-strong powerhouse has no intention of going quietly into the night. His recent publicity blitz, including a revealing sit-down with PBS's Bill Moyers that aired Friday and spirited speech yesterday before the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, means that Obama's relationship with his longtime preacher will remain front and center at precisely the time questions about his electability in the fall are being highlighted—mostly by Clinton.
In a ballroom packed with a largely black audience of church leaders in town for a conference, as well as more than two dozen television cameras and scores of reporters who watched three and four deep from the press balconies, Wright repeatedly criticized the "corporate media" that he says have taken sound bites from his sermons and used them out of context to mischaracterize his message—to crucify him, he has said in recent days. Though his prepared speech was an impassioned but rhetorically restrained history of the black church in America and a defense of the wide, deep, and significant work his church has performed in its community, the tone during the question-and-answer period that followed was decidedly more confrontational.
While answering questions submitted in writing by audience members, Wright charged that the harsh criticism of his more incendiary sermons—including one after the 9/11 attacks during which he said that America's "chickens have come home to roost"—are not attacks on him but "on the black church."
He stoutly defended his 9/11 comment, asserting that "you cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you." And when the press club official asking the submitted questions admitted to Wright that she had not heard his entire post-9/11 sermon, he said, flatly: "That nullifies that question." Wright said that another sermon in which he substituted "God damn America" for "God bless America" was "about policy, not the American people." The nation, he said, still needs to confront slavery and "ask forgiveness."
Wright also defended his patriotism—"I served six years in the military," he said. "How many years did [Vice President] Cheney serve?" And he refused to back down when asked about his laudatory description of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as one of the most important voices of the 20th and 21st centuries.
In his words, tone, and confidence, Wright gave every indication that he will continue to use the controversy that has surrounded his sermons—as well as Obama's subsequent speech on race in America—to keep his voice in the public square and to stoke the newly revived national conversation about race, slavery, and the black church. This does not appear to be a man worried that presumed GOP nominee John McCain has already started using Wright's words against Obama. Nor do they reflect a pastoral leader fretting that his often incensed rhetoric could make Obama's path to becoming the first black presidential nominee a lot rockier.
Obama, who has distanced himself from Wright's more controversial comments, said yesterday that people were legitimately offended by the reverend's comments, and that makes it a "legitimate political issue."
Wright says he understands Obama's need to distance himself. "If Senator Obama didn't say what he said, he'd never be elected." However, he added, "I'm not running for office." And with that, Wright grinned and said: "But I'm open to being vice president."