At a moment when Barack Obama is struggling to win over white voters worried about the economy, a series of public appearances by his former pastor is threatening to revive a tempest over race, patriotism and religion that the Democratic presidential front-runner hoped he had quashed.
The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. appeared at the National Press Club on Monday, delivering a defiant address in which he defended and amplified some politically and racially charged remarks from past sermons.
The speech was the third nationally televised appearance Wright has made since Friday, in what Democratic strategists and pollsters described as an unwelcome distraction for an Obama campaign that would prefer to see Wright fade from the scene.
Taking questions Monday, Wright stood by some of the most divisive assertions he had made in church sermons -- statements that Obama has denounced.
He declined to retract a statement from a post-Sept. 11 sermon that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”
“You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you,” Wright said after his speech. “Those are biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles.”
Asked about his earlier suggestion that the government had created AIDS to harm black people, Wright said that “based on the Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.” He was referring to an infamous experiment conducted over decades in which the government studied syphilis by allowing blacks to go untreated for the disease.
Wright spoke admiringly of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, long criticized for making anti-Semitic comments. Wright described Farrakhan as a hugely influential figure -- “one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century.”
“Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy,” Wright said. “He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery and he didn’t make me this color.”
Wright had kept a low public profile since portions of his sermons were widely played on television in March, including snippets in which the pastor said “God damn America.” Obama, a longtime member of Wright’s church in Chicago, partially quelled the controversy with a speech on race in Philadelphia that month. But Republicans are already using Wright’s comments in advertisements against Obama.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, has said that she would not have chosen Wright as her pastor.
The Obama campaign said it had no role in Wright’s emergence in public, which included his appearance on a PBS program broadcast Friday, sermons on Sunday morning in Dallas and a televised speech before a National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People dinner in Detroit on Sunday night.
“We were told he was going to do it,” said David Axelrod, a top campaign strategist for Obama. “There wasn’t anything we could do about it. We have no control over Rev. Wright. Is it bad or good for the campaign? I think candor requires me to say it’s not ideal.”
Obama reacted to Wright’s comments on Monday, noting that he considered Wright to be his “former pastor.”
“Any of the statements he’s made -- both that triggered this initial controversy and those he’s made over the last several days -- are not statements that I heard him make previously,” Obama said. “They don’t represent my views and they don’t represent what this campaign is about.”
Wright, who spoke at the National Press Club at the organization’s invitation, said he accepted in part because he was unwilling to sit still while his “faith tradition” was demeaned.
He said the criticism directed at him was tantamount to “an attack on the black church.”
For Obama, the timing is unwelcome. He is facing new scrutiny from Democratic leaders after failing to win white blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He lost both state primaries to Clinton by large margins.
Public opinion surveys also are showing new challenges for Obama. In an Associated Press poll released Monday, Clinton was ahead of John McCain by 9 percentage points while Obama was essentially tied in a head-to-head matchup with the presumed Republican nominee.
Exit polls from Pennsylvania showed that about 20% of voters said race was a major factor in deciding whom to support. White voters who cited race as a factor went for Clinton by a 3-to-1 margin.
To win over white blue-collar voters, Obama needs to convince them he will champion their interests, Democratic strategists said. That’s a tough argument to make with his former pastor retaking the stage, returning the focus to race and religion.
“He needs to talk about the people’s problems, not his own problems,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist who is not aligned with either candidate. “He needs to talk about the economic plight of the American voter and how to get out of Iraq. What this does is divert him from his strong message of change.”
Said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster: “I can’t imagine it does anything that would help Sen. Obama or the Democratic cause by having Rev. Wright front and center in this campaign.”
Obama’s relationship with Wright dates back 20 years. The pastor presided over Obama’s wedding and baptized his two daughters. The title of Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope” was drawn from a Wright sermon.
Obama has long been aware that the relationship is a delicate political matter.
He rescinded an invitation to have Wright give the invocation at his presidential announcement speech in February 2007.
The Obama campaign is not planning another Philadelphia-style speech aimed at damage control.
In his appearance before the press club Monday, Wright offered a blend of biblical references and political commentary. He pulled passages from the Bible to buttress some of the assertions that have caused Obama embarrassment.
Asked about his statement that the U.S. had invited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Wright said: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked, for whatsoever you sow that you also shall . . . “
Supporters in the audience finished the sentence: “Reap.”
Wright’s depiction of Farrakhan drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League. The organization said Monday that Farrakhan had never apologized for multiple anti-Semitic comments, some recent.
A section of the ADL’s website tracks Farrakhan’s statements. The group quotes from a Farrakhan speech in November 2007 in which he asserted that “satanic Jews” had taken over the Black Entertainment Television network.
Times staff writer James Hohmann contributed to this report.
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IN HIS OWN WORDS
‘They are unfair accusations’
Some recent statements by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
From his appearance Monday at the National Press Club in Washington:
On Barack Obama’s denunciation of some of his past remarks:
“Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls. . . . Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable. As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God Nov. 5 and Jan. 21. . . .
“He had to distance himself because he’s a politician. From what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American. He said I didn’t offer any words of hope. How would he know? He never heard the rest of the sermon. You never heard it. I offered words of hope. I offered reconciliation. I offered restoration in that sermon, but nobody heard the sermon. They just heard this little sound bite of a sermon.”
On whether he should apologize for shouting in a sermon “God damn America” for its treatment of minorities:
“God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns some things. And dem, D-E-M, is where we get the word damn. God damns some practices and there’s no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America or unpatriotic.”
On people who say he’s unpatriotic:
“I feel that those citizens who say that have never heard my sermons, nor do they know me. They are unfair accusations taken from sound bites and that which is looped over and over on certain channels. I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?”
From a speech during the NAACP’s annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner on Sunday in Detroit:
“I’m not here for political reasons. I am not a politician. I know that fact will surprise many of you because many in the corporate-owned media have made it seem as if I have announced that I’m running for the Oval Office. I am not running for the Oval Office. I’ve been running for Jesus a long, long time, and I’m not tired yet.”
“In the past, we were taught to see others who are different as being deficient. We establish arbitrary norm and then determine that anybody not like us was abnormal. But a change is coming, because we no longer see others who are different as being deficient. We just see them as different.”
“I come from a religious tradition where we shout in the sanctuary and march on the picket line. I come from a religious tradition where we give God the glory and the devil the blues. The black religious tradition is different. We do it a different way.”
From an interview that aired Friday on PBS’ “Bill Moyers’ Journal”:
On the sermon he gave after Sept. 11 saying “America’s chickens are coming home to roost” after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan and “supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans”:
“The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly. What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic.”
Source: Associated Press