Barack Obama angrily disowned his former pastor and friend of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., saying Tuesday that Wright’s recent comments about race, religion and the U.S. government were “divisive and destructive” and had undermined the purpose of Obama’s presidential candidacy.
Appearing pained and irritated, the senator from Illinois said that Wright, who used a nationally televised speech Monday at the National Press Club to repeat some of his most incendiary comments, was “not the person that I met 20 years ago.” Obama called the pastor’s appearance a “spectacle” and a “performance,” and said it was a “show of disrespect to me” and “an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.”
Some black leaders said Tuesday that they were frustrated at Wright for undertaking a publicity tour in recent days that may have harmed the chance to elect the first black president. And a number of African American church leaders expressed alarm that Wright, whose views on social issues are far to the left of most black clergy, claimed on Monday to speak for all black churches.
“I wish that Jeremiah, my friend, had kept his eye on the prize,” said the Rev. Frank Madison Reid III, pastor of a large African Methodist Episcopal congregation in Baltimore who studied with Wright and has invited him regularly to preach at his church. “And the prize here for America, for all Americans, is that we can elect the first black man for the presidency.”
Obama’s rebuke came amid a renewed controversy over Wright that has enveloped the candidate’s campaign just one week before key primary contests in Indiana and North Carolina against his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Previously, while Obama had denounced some of Wright’s views, he had refused to outright reject the pastor who officiated at his wedding and baptized his children and whom he had likened to an uncle.
“Obviously, whatever relationship I had with Rev. Wright has changed, as a consequence of this,” Obama told reporters in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday, one day after the latest appearance by Wright, which has been replayed continuously on cable television. Obama’s unusually strong words underscored the extent of the crisis facing his campaign as he attempts to court blue-collar white voters, who largely have rejected him in recent primaries but are considered important in the general election.
It is those voters that Democratic strategists fear could be turned off by Obama’s long association with Wright, and who are expected to play a critical role in the outcome of the Indiana primary. Already, Republicans, sensing an opportunity, are featuring Wright and Obama in Internet and television ads to undercut Democrats in local races, and presumptive GOP nominee John McCain hinted this week that he now considered Wright’s views to be fair political game.
Wright first emerged as a problem for Obama in March, when snippets of some of his sermons became available in which he said “God damn America” and said the 9/11 attacks were the result of U.S. foreign policy. Obama seemed to have largely quelled the controversy with a major speech on race that month that won widespread praise as the presidential candidate presented himself as a racial healer and unifier.
In that speech, Obama said that Wright was “like family” to him, adding that he “contains within him the contradictions -- the good and the bad -- of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.” He said that he could “no more disown him” than he could disown the black community.
In his nuanced address that day, Obama made it clear that he remained tightly connected to Trinity United Church of Christ. The roughly 8,000-member congregation on Chicago’s south side, where Wright had served, helped Obama find religion and build a political network as he established himself in his adopted hometown.
But last weekend and on Monday, Wright returned to prominence with several public appearances, including one in which he said the U.S. government was capable of having created the AIDS virus to harm people of color. He also defended his argument that U.S. foreign policy holds a measure of blame for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, likening U.S. military actions to terrorism. He hailed Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose views are widely considered anti-Semitic, as one of the great black leaders of modern times.
Wright also discounted Obama’s earlier criticisms of his remarks as the mere necessity of politics, saying, “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls.”
For Obama, who has campaigned as a transcendent figure who eschews the old ways of politics, this apparently was the last straw.
“At a certain point, 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 said Tuesday. He later added: “What I think particularly angered me was his suggestion, somehow, that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing.”
“Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that I’m about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the commonality in all people,” Obama said. “And so when I start hearing comments about conspiracy theories and AIDS and suggestions that somehow Minister Farrakhan is -- has been a great voice in the 20th century, then that goes directly at who I am and what I believe this country needs.”
The Wright controversy frustrated other black leaders, as well, who feared that white Americans might begin to view Wright as somehow a symbol of the black church and Obama as a follower of his views.
U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, a black South Carolina congressman and a member of the House Democratic leadership, said in a television interview that he was “very, very disturbed” by the controversy and that the confluence of race, religion and politics was “very, very uncomfortable.”
Herb J. Wesson Jr., an African American Los Angeles city councilman, said that Obama was smart to break with Wright and, if anything, should have done it sooner.
Obama “is doing what he has to do because the things that [Wright] is saying are making no sense,” Wesson said. “It’s difficult for me to watch. A lot of times he’ll begin to speak and I’ll walk away. He said some things at the press club that made my head spin.”
Some church leaders said Wright’s outburst Monday brought unwelcome attention, pointing to long-simmering points of tension between Wright and leaders in other denominations.
“I am very much disgusted with Rev. Wright’s inflammatory comments,” said the Rev. John J. Hunter, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. “They are a reflection of his personal beliefs rather than any general understanding of the African American church. They have been very destructive and have not served the African American church or Sen. Obama well.”
Times staff writers Peter Nicholas in Washington and Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.