WASHINGTON -- In March, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) went to great lengths not to "disown" his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after fiery videotaped comments from sermons surfaced. In return, an unapologetic Wright launched a speaking tour, ending Monday, drawing outsized coverage on the hot-button issues of God and race days before crucial votes in Indiana and North Carolina, threatening Obama's presidential bid.
As coverage swelled, the situation was so serious that Obama, late Monday at a hastily arranged availability on the tarmac at an airport in Wilmington, N.C., said of Wright, "I have said before and I will repeat again that what some of the comments that Rev. Wright had made offend me, and I understand why they have offended the American people."He does not speak for me. He does not speak for the campaign."
(this column appreared in the April 29 print Sun-Times)
On Monday morning, Wright packed the ballroom at the National Press Club, picking a venue that guaranteed Wright would get tough questions and international coverage about his sermons, patriotism and Obama, who used the title of one of Wright's sermons to name his second book, The Audacity of Hope. Wright married Obama and baptized his daughters.
Some in the Obama camp were stunned that Wright did not realize the potential harm he could do to Obama's candidacy by reviving stories about Obama's relationship with his pastor.
This is a critical time in Obama's quest for the Democratic nomination -- Indiana and North Carolina vote May 6. Instead of keeping low, Wright is seeking the spotlight as he wraps up 36 years as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side.
Wright has dominated the political news since Friday, when an interview with Bill Moyers was broadcast on PBS, followed by two sermons at a South Dallas megachurch on Sunday and a Sunday night keynote address to the Detroit NAACP.
Obama chief strategist David Axelrod told Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball," that Wright's appearances are not helpful. ''I don't think it is necessarily meant to be helpful. I don't think it is about Obama. Rev. Wright is out there speaking for Rev. Wright. . . . It is unfortunate from our perspective."
Obama's key challenge in Indiana is wresting blue-collar white voters from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
One Obama adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly, said Wright has become a "huge distraction. At a time when Obama is trying to appeal to blue-collar and working-class voters, Jeremiah Wright is dragging this campaign into a conversation about race . . . and that's not what white voters want to hear."
Wright, the adviser said, making an "intervention into presidential politics at this critical moment could have potentially devastating implications for the remaining nine contests."
Wright was in Washington for a conference on black churches, and much of the audience at the breakfast consisted of friends, family and supporters, with working press in the balcony and in the back.
Wright pretty much kept to the text of his speech at the Press Club, where he touched on the history of the African-American church in the U.S., black liberation theology, the differences between black and "European-American" preaching and reconciliation and racial healing.
But a stormy question-and-answer session came after the speech where Wright was at times combative, even chiding the moderator, Donna Leinwand, the vice president of the club and a reporter at USA Today.
Asked why he was speaking out now, Wright said, "This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright. It has nothing to do with Senator Obama. It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition."
Obama delivered a highly regarded speech on race relations and Wright in Philadelphia, where he distanced himself from Wright's comments -- but not the man.
Obama has been campaigning as a new kind of politician, and Wright potentially damaged Obama when he said that Obama "had to distance himself, because he's a politician," implying that perhaps Obama did not mean what he said.
Wright earned applause from the non-reporters in the audience, when he said, in response to a question about his patriotism that "I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?"