CHICAGO--In an extraordinary day in his more than yearlong quest for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama on Friday sought to put behind him two raging controversies jeopardizing his bid: his relationships with his minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and with his friend and political patron, Tony Rezko.
Obama held two extensive, separate sessions with journalists from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. An unassuming Obama entered a 10th-floor Sun-Times conference room for a conversation Friday, not as the hotshot at a rally. It was his moment — his time, as he himself might say — to try to bring this to an end.
“I think it’s really important to make sure that you guys feel like you’ve got it all,” Obama said.
The meetings with the Chicago papers had been planned for several days, with Rezko the main agenda item. Obama was finding himself on the defensive over Rezko, now on trial in a Chicago courtroom on corruption charges.
His campaign was also responding to another swelling crisis. Videos and news stories of Wright’s inflammatory sermons and his slams of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton hit mainstream media outlets and zoomed through the Internet.
Friday afternoon, the Obama campaign sent to the Huffington Post — unsolicited — a 591-word statement from Obama. He said he learned of Wright’s charged rhetoric for the first time at the beginning of his presidential campaign but, with Wright on the verge of retirement, “did not think it appropriate” to leave the church where he was married and where his daughters were baptized.
“I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of the controversy,” he wrote. Within minutes, his blog post on the influential Web site was picked up by every news outlet.
There was more damage control to do. Obama was booked for a live interview Friday night on MSNBC’s “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” and for taped sessions with Fox News and CNN.
But what Obama had not done until later Friday was sever ties that Wright had with his campaign. Wright’s continued presence with the Obama campaign — far more than Obama’s personal decision to stay with his church — was a ticking time bomb for Obama.
Minister off campaign panel
For several days this last week, the Obama campaign had been raising a ruckus over an interview that a Clinton backer, former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, gave to the Daily Breeze, a newspaper in Torrance, Calif. Ferraro said: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman [of any color] he would not be in this position.”
Obama himself took the offensive Wednesday, telling CBS’ Harry Smith, “To the extent that Senator Clinton’s campaign doesn’t distance itself from that, I think it’s a perpetuation of the same divisive politics that has done us so much damage.”
By the end of Wednesday, Ferraro, a fund-raiser for Clinton, had stepped down.
Earlier, Obama had taken a casualty himself, when one of his chief foreign-policy advisers, Samantha Power, resigned her high-profile role after calling Clinton a “monster” in an interview with the Scotsman.
Obama’s team had to realize that it would seem inconsistent — at the least — for Wright to remain at a time when Obama was taking fire, not only from Clinton and her allies but, increasingly, from presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and other Republicans.
Later Friday, the Obama team sent out a terse e-mail saying, “Rev. Wright is no longer serving on the African American Religious Leadership Committee.” That is one of several advisory panels within the Obama campaign.
It is not clear whether Wright left on his own or was pushed. Asked by Olbermann for clarification, Obama said, “It was important for him to step out of the spotlight in this situation.”
In making the effort to get potentially crippling matters behind him and to move on, Obama is now freer than before to go after Clinton’s lapses on the ethics and disclosure fronts.
Clinton has declined to release even the last year of her income tax returns, and Obama has. Clinton has not been able to expedite the release of her first lady records from the Clinton presidential library. Clinton has not made public her earmark — or pet project — spending requests for any of her time in the Senate, and Obama has. Obama has revealed a bit more information about his fund-raising “bundlers” than Clinton. The donors who bankroll Bill Clinton’s library and foundation are not public.
With showdown primaries ahead — and debates April 16 in Pennsylvania and April 19 in North Carolina — Clinton has every liability in front of her.