It had to have been a tough moment for Barack Obama—the lowest moment of his campaign. At a press conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Tuesday afternoon, he denounced and rejected his one-time pastor.
After Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s four-day media-fest—during which he spoke positively about Louis Farrakhan, equated attacks on himself as attacks on the black church, claimed that the brains of blacks and whites operate differently, mocked white people, and defiantly, if not arrogantly, defended the over-the-top comments that sparked the Wright controversy—Obama had to do something. With an expression of pain and sadness on his face, Obama said he had been “shocked” and “surprised” by Wright’s performance Monday at the National Press Club. “I don’t think anyone could attribute” Wright’s ideas “to me,” he remarked, noting that Wright was “wrong” and his recent statements “appalling.” He insisted that Wright’s remarks contradict “how I was raised,” “my public life,” “what I said in my book,” “my 2004 convention speech,” and “everything I’ve said on the campaign trail.”
Referring to his speech last month on race—which was prompted by the first Wright eruption—Obama said that he had tried to “provide a context… and make something positive out of” the Wright affair. Regarding Wright’s National Press Club appearance, Obama said it was “a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth. I can’t construct something positive out of that.” Wright, he observed, had “caricatured himself.”
Obama also displayed irritation and anger. Noting that Wright had suggested that Obama had engaged in political posturing, Obama said, “that’s a show of disrespect to me.” He also said, “I don’t think [Wright] has showed much concern for me…or what we have tried to do in this campaign.” Obama had in mind his own attempt to travel past racial differences. In his recent public speeches, Wright emphasized—and to a degree, legitimized—race as a defining difference in American life, pointing out, of course, that “different is not deficient.” Obama’s tack has been to recognize racial difference but to transcend the white-black divide and leapfrog the same-old/same-old arguments about race and America—”to get out of the old divisive politics of the past,” as he put it in Winston-Salem. Wright’s statements and behavior—he was exploiting the old divisions, Obama said—made that difficult job much more difficult for Obama. But his in-your-face performance at the National Press Club—where he danced and preened and made outlandish remarks that were factually wrong—removed a difficult choice for Obama: what to do about Wright. Obama had no option but to further remove himself from the world of Jeremiah Wright.
Has any presidential candidate ever had to slam the leader of his own church? Obama did it with as much grace and poise as possible. “I did not vet my pastor,” he said, adding, “whatever relationship I have had with Reverend Wright has changed.” During the press conference, a reporter asked if the Wright matter—his statements and Obama’s response—will affect Obama’s campaign. Obama pointed to the upcoming primaries in Indiana and North Carolina on Tuesday. “We’ll find out,” he said, “what impact it has.”