PHILADELPHIA, PA.--Words are powerful--whether Sen. Barack Obama's soaring, unifying rhetoric or the divisive language from his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "Just words," as Obama often has observed, fuel movements of hope and change. Obama's words--in a speech here Tuesday near Independence Hall--about race and Wright will determine if his campaign will be crippled by the Wright controversy.
But if his approach is to "blame Washington" for his political problems stemming from his association with Wright and Tony Rezko--an Obama fund-raiser now on trial in Chicago on federal corruption charges--as he did in an interview Monday with Gwen Ifill of PBS, it will be harder to get this episode behind him. A major strategic plank of the Obama campaign is to run against Washington.
Ifill asked if his relations with Rezko and Wright reflected on his judgement. Obama said, "And probably what’s true is because I haven’t been in Washington as long as Senator Clinton or others that I have not distanced myself from these people for as long a period of time as somebody more steeped in Washington politics might have."
Obama did not blame Washington on Saturday, when he spoke in Plainfield, Ind. about Wright, previewing how he might handle things Tuesday. In that speech, he said right off some of Wright's statements "were incendiary" and he rejected that language.
On Saturday, Obama sought to portray Wright as more than a polarizing figure—someone who bears the scares of racism-- while conceding that “if all I knew was those statements that I saw on television, I would be shocked. And it just reminds me that we've got a tragic history when it comes to race in this country. We’ve got a lot of pent-up anger and bitterness and misunderstanding.”
With all that, Obama drew loud cheers when he added, “But what I continue to believe in is that this country wants to move beyond these kinds of divisions.”
MS. IFILL: The distinction between you and Senator Clinton that’s been drawn by both of you over the last several weeks has been judgment versus experience. So let me ask you about your judgment on some issues, not only Reverend Wright and your association with him over the years but also Tony Rezko who you’ve talked a lot about recently, the Chicago developer who is now on trial on federal charges. Do you think that your association with those two people or people we don’t know about would raise questions about your judgment?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, no, look, all of us have people in our lives who we meet, we get to know, in some cases form friendships with, who end up getting themselves into trouble or say things that we don’t agree with. And probably what’s true is because I haven’t been in Washington as long as Senator Clinton or others that I have not distanced myself from these people for as long a period of time as somebody more steeped in Washington politics might have. But keep in mind, on all these issues, there is no allegations that I’ve done anything wrong, just as in the situation with Reverend Wright there is no allegation that I’ve said something that was inappropriate. And so I think the American people recognize that all of us have friends or associates or people who we meet along the way who are not ideal or perfect. But that’s part of what life is about.
Obama on Rezko and Wright in Ifill interview.
IFILL: But let’s talk about political judgment. Neither of these are new issues. Are these things you could have laid to rest some months ago?
OBAMA: Well, no, I mean, part of the reason that I went into talk to the Chicago papers about the Rezko matter was there was the suggestion that we hadn’t laid it to rest. And in fact, I was before the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune sometimes for a combined three hours. (NOTE--HE WAS AT THE TRIB 90 MINUTES AND THE SUN-TIMES 80 MINUTES) And in fact, we had answered almost every question that they had raised previously. And the Chicago Tribune issued a very lengthy editorial afterwards indicating the fact that, well, you know what? He has actually disclosed exhaustively what this relationship was. And it was in which I had nothing to do with the wrongdoing that Mr. Rezko is accused of.
I understand though that I’m now a presidential candidate. So having done this six or nine months ago, it was probably important for us to do it again. And I suspect when I’m the nominee of the Democratic Party, the same crop of questions will come up. We’ll have to do it again three months from now.