‘The audacity of hope” just got less hopeful. Senator Barack Obama is facing questions about his closest spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, from whom he cribbed the title of his second book and rallying cry of his presidential campaign.
The controversy has forced Obama to schedule a speech in Philadelphia today where he will address race and the campaign. Over the weekend, he lamented how “the forces of division have started to raise their ugly heads again,” although nothing has been as ugly or divisive as what Rev. Wright has said.
In recent days, we have seen videos of Wright, Obama’s longtime pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, preaching a vile anti-Americanism from the pulpit. “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America,’” Wright told his congregation in 2003. “No, no, no — God damn America. That’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”
On September 16, 2001, just five days after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Wright told his congregation, “We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. . . . We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.” Wright referred to America — “white America” — as “the U.S. of KKK A.”
In a sermon this January, Obama’s pastor criticized Hillary Clinton and disparaged the idea that black voters should support her. “Hillary is married to Bill, and Bill has been good to us. No he ain’t! Bill did us, just like he did Monica Lewinsky. He was ridin’ dirty.”
Obama dismissed previously reported incendiary comments by his pastor by likening him to an uncle who says disagreeable things. But you don’t chose your obnoxious uncles, and you certainly don’t put them on advisory committees of your campaign (Wright is now off Obama’s African-American Religious Leadership Committee).
In the face of video evidence of Wright’s angry rantings, Obama has attempted to distance himself from his choice of mentors by repudiating his pastor’s “inflammatory” and “appalling” remarks. “The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation,” Obama said in a statement Friday night. “When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign. I made it clear at the time that I strongly condemned his comments. But because Rev. Wright was on the verge of retirement, and because of my strong links to the Trinity faith community, where I married my wife and where my daughters were baptized, I did not think it appropriate to leave the church.”
But that left the question unanswered: Even if Obama heard none of the specific statements at issue, is he telling us he went to that church for 20 years and is only now aware of Rev. Wright’s venomous views? The enthusiastic reaction of his fellow congregants apparent on the videos contradicts Obama’s incredible claim that Wright’s anti-American, racist rantings are an anomaly. Perhaps Michelle Obama was more attentive during their pastor’s sermons. There is an echo of them in her complaints that America is “downright mean,” and her comment that she has been proud of her country as an adult only since her husband began to have political success.
In his statement, Obama explained, “And while Rev. Wright’s statements have pained and angered me, I believe that Americans will judge me not on the basis of what someone else said, but on the basis of who I am and what I believe in; on my values, judgment, and experience to be President of the United States.” The problem for Obama is that the length and depth of his relationship with the Rev. Wright and his unconvincing attempts to distance himself from his mentor tell Americans far more about his values and judgment than his compelling campaign speeches about racial harmony do.
The Hillary Clinton campaign is loath to raise the Rev. Wright issue and John McCain even apologized after his campaign staff e-mailed around an oped about Rev. Wright’s ravings. But Obama’s association with the pastor is a legitimate issue that — if Obama is the Democratic nominee — will get, and deserve, even more scrutiny in the general election. Super-delegates beware.