The most damaging thing Rev. Jeremiah Wright said at the National Press Club on Monday had nothing to do with God damning America, or AIDS, or chickens coming home to roost. It had to do with whether Barack Obama is telling the American people the truth about himself.
“Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls,” Wright told the Press Club. “Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. . . . I do what pastors do. [Obama] does what politicians do.” A few days earlier, in an interview with PBS’s Bill Moyers, Wright said Obama, in his Philadelphia speech attempting to calm the controversy created by Wright’s sermons, had said “what he has to say as a politician.”
That, not Wright’s wide-ranging social theories, is what forced Obama to denounce Wright at a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday. By questioning Obama’s honesty, Wright was striking at the heart of the Obama campaign. The most damaging thing Wright could ever say is that he knows, based on his long personal relationship with Obama, that Obama agrees with him but can’t say so publicly for political reasons. Put another way, if voters believe that Obama fundamentally rejects Wright’s views, they might question Obama’s judgment in remaining close to Wright for 20 years. But if voters believe that Obama secretly agrees with Wright but is putting on another face to win an election, then all is lost. “People could ask why somebody with good judgment would take so long to do this,” a Democratic strategist told me Monday night. “But that’s certainly better than the subtext being that Obama is an angry black man, because if he’s an angry black man, then he simply cannot win, period.”
That is why Obama had to act quickly, before the Wright affair could do any more damage. “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,” Obama told reporters in North Carolina. “That’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.”
To show that Wright’s worldview “is antithetical to our campaign” and “antithetical to what I am about,” Obama had to go out of his way to denounce Wright’s specific statements more forcefully than in the past. “All it was, was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth,” he said of Wright’s appearance at the Press Club. “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.”
To many ears, it was indeed clear and unequivocal. “He’s kind of taken the cancer and cut it off his body,” the Democratic strategist told me. “It’s not like radiation or chemotherapy — he amputated the limb.”
But as definitive as Obama seemed, there are still questions about his relationship with Wright. Anyone watching Wright in the last few days has seen how fluidly he moved from his theories about the United States to theories about terrorism to theories about racial differences, and education, and music, and much, much more. Is it really plausible for Obama to say that he did not hear a steady stream of such stuff coming from Wright’s pulpit in the last 20 years? The fact that Obama is such a long-time member of Wright’s church makes it reasonable to suspect that Obama found a lot to agree with in what Wright preached.
In addition, it is not clear whether Obama has fully renounced what he said about Wright in Philadelphia. In that speech, Obama said, “I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community.” Is Obama disowning Wright now, or not? He wasn’t asked that specific question in North Carolina Tuesday, but he will need to have an answer in the future.
And even if he answers those questions to the satisfaction of voters now, the threat from Wright remains, all the way until November 4. Wright knows the true nature of his relationship with Obama. He knows what they have said to each other. He knows whether Obama finds Wright’s views as offensive as he has said. There are more than six months left before the general election, and if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, that is a lot of time for the voluble — and publicity-loving — pastor to remain silent.