Politics & Policy

Obama and his Audience

They heard a great speech -- and what was the problem with Rev. Wright's sermons, anyway?

Philadelphia — The small auditorium here at the National Constitution Center, where Barack Obama delivered what his aides called a “major address on race, politics, and unifying our country,” was filled mostly with guests invited by the Obama campaign. So it was not surprising that after the speech, Obama’s guests, streaming out of the room into the cavernous atrium of the Center, thought he delivered a great speech. What might be surprising, though, is that a number of them saw nothing particularly wrong with the “controversial” remarks by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, that set this whole process in motion.

“It was amazing,” Gregory Davis, a financial adviser and Obama supporter from Philadelphia, told me. “I think he addressed the issue, and if that does not address the issue, I don’t know what else can be said about it. That was just awesome oratory.”

I asked Davis what his personal reaction was when he saw video clips of sermons in which Rev. Wright said, “God damn America,” called the United States the “U.S. of KKK A,” and said that 9/11 was “America’s chickens… coming home to roost.” “As a member of a traditional Baptist, black church, I wasn’t surprised,” Davis told me. “I wasn’t offended by anything the pastor said. A lot of things he said were absolutely correct…. The way he said it may not have been the most appropriate way to say it, but as far as a typical black inner-city church, that’s how it’s said.”

Vernon Price, a ward leader in Philadelphia’s 22nd Precinct, told me Obama’s speech was “very courageous.” When I asked his reaction to Rev. Wright, Price said, “A lot of things that he said were true, whether people want to accept it, or believe it, or not. People believe in their hearts that a lot of what he said was true.”

Rev. Alyn Waller, of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, was effusive about Obama’s performance. “I thought it was masterful,” he told me. Waller explained that he knows Rev. Wright and the preaching tradition from which he comes. “I think much of what he had to say was on point in terms of America needs to challenge her foreign policy,” Waller told me. “While it may be divisive to talk about 9/11 as chickens coming home to roost, what was really being said there is that America cannot believe that our hands are totally innocent in worldwide violence. So at the core of his arguments, I think there is a truth.”

Shortly after “controversial” portions of Wright’s sermons were played on television last week, Obama issued a carefully worded response, saying, “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.” In Philadelphia today, Obama conceded that his earlier statement did not answer all the questions about the issue, and he said he had indeed heard Wright make what are often referred to as “fiery” statements. “Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church?” Obama said. “Yes.”

But Obama equated Wright’s “God damn America” comment with the sort of speaking that goes on in churches and synagogues every day. “Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views?” Obama asked. “Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.”

Obama took care not to distance himself any further from his long-time pastor, stressing that Wright had “strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children.” If anything, Obama drew Wright closer than he had in the hours after the “God damn America” story broke. “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community,” Obama told the audience. “I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are part of me.”

In the end, Obama delivered a well-crafted speech. Has he ever made a truly bad one? But his address at the National Constitution Center did not put to rest the concerns of those Americans who wonder just what he thought as he sat in Wright’s church listening to the pastor’s “controversial” statements; after all, Obama knew of Wright’s positions and had planned, until a very cold day and fear of controversy forced a change, to have Wright deliver the invocation at his presidential announcement last year. Beyond that, the reactions of some Obama partisans in the audience here in Philadelphia today did not put to rest concerns that Rev. Wright’s comments are not the subject of universal disapproval but are in fact positions with which many of Obama’s supporters agree.


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