WASHINGTON -- On Monday, a combative Rev. Jeremiah Wright noted -- with some smugness -- at a press conference here that Sen. Barack Obama "did not denounce me. He distanced himself from some of my remarks." Following what Obama called Wright's "rants" at that session, Obama -- with some anger -- denounced his pastor "very clearly and unequivocally" on Tuesday.
(This Lynn Sweet column is from the April 30 print Sun-Times)
Obama cut the cord with Wright, who retires in May as senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, after Wright's first major encounter with the news media resulted in what Obama called a "spectacle" that was "appalling" and "a show of disrespect" to him and an "insult" to his campaign.
On Monday afternoon, Obama's strongest reaction was only that Wright "does not speak for me." But Obama had not seen the whole Wright session at the National Press Club or read a transcript. Once he did Monday night, an Obama aide said, he decided he needed to respond more forcefully on Tuesday.
There was a sense of urgency in trying to tamp down Wright because Obama faces crucial elections in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday, and undecided superdelegates -- party leaders and elected officials -- whose votes he needs if he is to beat Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Within Obama circles there was concern whether Wright will come out swinging or sideline himself, prompted because Obama, at a hastily scheduled press conference in North Carolina, finally disowned Wright.
That was a move Obama very consciously decided not to do in March in Philadelphia, when he delivered a major speech on race and his relationship with Wright after a series of controversial remarks Wright had made in videotaped sermons surfaced. He said in that speech he could not "disown" Wright any more than he could "disown his white grandmother" who had some racist views.
Wright's fiery words created a crisis in the Obama campaign because he said in those sermons the U.S. government spread the AIDS virus, shared responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and in one quote that has been constantly replayed, said "God damn America."
Last February, Obama scrambled to cement support within the Jewish community after a magazine connected to Wright honored Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a decision that Obama strongly disagreed with. At the time, Obama downplayed Wright, saying he "is like an old uncle who sometimes will say things that I don't agree with."
But given an opportunity to repudiate these remarks during a question-and-answer session at the National Press Club -- following a non-controversial speech about the black church -- Wright only repeated them.
"His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church," said Obama.
Obama also said that he had given Wright the "benefit of the doubt" in his Philadelphia speech because of the "enormous good" he has done at Trinity.
"But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS; when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century; when he equates the United States' wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally here today. "
Obama also was angered at Wright's assertion that Obama criticized him in order to get elected and "he does what politicians do."
"At a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough. That's a show of disrespect to me. It's -- it is also, I think, an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign," Obama said.