Marion Barry is one politician who’s not going to distance himself from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. “It was a brilliant speech,” the former mayor of Washington, D.C., told me after Wright’s appearance at the National Press Club Monday morning. “I’ve read his sermons, I’ve been to his church, so I know about him. It’s very clear most Americans only know Jeremiah Wright through those 15-second soundbites, which is ridiculous.”
Barry was echoing Wright’s own argument, often made by people who’ve been caught saying something inappropriate, that his words had been taken out of context. Monday, as Wright took the podium at the National Press Club, insiders on both sides of the presidential campaign were watching closely, waiting to learn more of that context; maybe Wright would explain himself in a way that could defuse the issue. “All those points that he had made that he had said were taken out of context, and here he had this opportunity to provide the additional context,” one GOP strategist told me. But it didn’t happen. “Instead of putting them into some context, he seemed to reinforce them,” the strategist said.
Wright’s performance not only left the Obama campaign scrambling to respond. It left some Democratic politicos, unattached to either the Obama or Clinton campaign, believing that Obama will have to abandon his vow, made last month in his Philadelphia speech on race, that “I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown the black community.”
“I think he’s going to have to walk farther away from Wright, if he wants to win the general election,” one Democratic strategist told me Monday night. “He could say, ‘This is different now. Just to eliminate any questions, I am going to leave this church, because I believe the country is more important.’ It would say that Wright’s rhetoric has no place in his campaign or the lives of his children.” (As the Wright controversy has festered, observers on both sides of the political divide have wondered, usually in whispers, about Obama’s decision to take his young children to Wright’s church.)
So far, at least, Obama isn’t going there. “I just want to emphasize that this is my former pastor,” he told reporters in Wilmington, N.C. (The 66-year-old Wright is now a “senior pastor” at the church.) “Many of the statements that he has made both to trigger this initial controversy and that he’s made over the last several days are not statements that I’ve heard him make previously. They don’t represent my views and they don’t represent what this campaign is about.”
The Democratic strategist believes the Wright issue will continue to trouble Obama through November, provided he finally dispatches Hillary Clinton in the primaries. But on the other side, in the McCain campaign, there has been some turmoil over how to handle the Wright issue. A number of Republicans were dismayed when McCain condemned an ad made by North Carolina Republicans tying a local candidate to Obama and Wright. One southern GOP strategist told me he got a call over the weekend from another well-connected Republican insider who moaned, “What’s wrong with our guy? He’s turning into such a wuss.”
Many Republicans were relieved when McCain changed direction on Sunday, latching onto Obama’s comment that Wright was a legitimate topic of discussion and indicating that he won’t fight third-party attempts to use the Wright issue. “Don’t look for Sen. McCain to put it in his ads,” one source in the campaign told me. “Don’t look for him to make speeches about it. But the reality is, this is part of the fabric of the presidential campaign, and a lot of people have questions about it.”
Meanwhile, at the Press Club, with that opportunity to contextualize his controversial statements, Wright chose instead to dig in. On his famous 9/11 “chickens coming home to roost” comment, he told the audience that the United States is a terrorist nation that got what it had coming on September 11. “To quote the Bible, ‘Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatsoever you sow, that you also shall reap,’“ Wright said. “Jesus said, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you. Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles.”
Wright also held firm to his suggestion that the United States government created the AIDS virus to kill black people. “Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” he said.
He even defended the most incendiary of his comments, “God damn America.” “That’s biblical,” Wright said. “God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, ‘demn,’ is where we get the word ‘damn.’ God damns some practices. And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America or unpatriotic.”
All of that was on top of a speech Wright gave last night to the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, in which he wandered all over the landscape, volunteering his opinions on the abilities of white children to learn logically and analytically, while black children learn orally and creatively (they’re especially good, Wright said, with hip-hop lyrics); on the varieties of spoken English, complete with Wright’s impersonation of John F. Kennedy; on black and white perceptions of music; on dancing, and much, much more. It was a speech that might be at times called “fiery.”
Wright’s address to the Press Club, at least at the beginning, was just the opposite, a serious lecture on black religion that went heavy on words like “hermeneutics” and “homiletics” and “foci.” If Wright had stopped at the end of his prepared remarks, no one would have had any news to report. But then there was a question-and-answer session, and Wright held forth.
The crowd loved it. Wright was at the Press Club as the guest of an organization called the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a group founded in 2003, in the words of its mission statement, “to strengthen the capacity and network of the African American faith community.” Inside the room, there was a somewhat awkward divide between journalists and the ministers and others who had come as part of the conference. In the back of the room was a row of cameras, in balconies on either side there were groups of print reporters, and in the middle were the conference attendees, including Barry, Cornel West, and officials from the Nation of Islam. They gave Wright a loud and friendly reception, while the reporters sat mostly stone-faced.
It was a quiet clash of cultures, one that Marion Barry has seen before. “Take his preaching style,” Barry told me. “A lot of white people think he is screaming and yelling. I’ve heard that from my white friends: Why does he have to scream so much? But that’s the preaching style of the black church. He came out of the black church. This did a great deal to educate America on the issue of the black church, liberation theology, and it put in context all that he talked about.”