Just as he tries to begin uniting a fractured Democratic Party, Senator Barack Obama is suffering from another damaging outburst from the pulpit of his longtime church, where outspoken Chicago priest Michael L. Pfleger said in a guest sermon last Sunday that Senator Hillary Clinton was a "white" and "entitled" politician staggered to see "a black man stealing my show."
In his stinging critique of Clinton's candidacy, Pfleger, a white pastor of the largely black parish St. Sabina and a fixture in the city's religious and political life, also mocked her emotional display before the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.
"When Hillary was crying, and people said that was put on, I really don't believe it was put on," Pfleger said at Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., delivered the sharp criticisms of the US government that caused Obama major headaches this spring. "I really believe that she just always thought, 'This is mine. I'm Bill's wife, I'm white and this is mine. I just gotta get up and step into the plate.' And then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama.' And she said, 'Oh, damn, where did you come from? I'm white. I'm entitled. There's a black man stealing my show.' "
Pretending to wipe away tears, Pfleger added as some congregants stood and applauded, "She wasn't the only one crying. There was a whole lot of white people crying."
Obama, who was not in the pews for the sermon, immediately repudiated the comments Thursday after a YouTube video surfaced.
The uproar comes at a particularly bad time for the Illinois senator, who is assiduously trying to mollify Clinton's supporters - and close racial and gender rifts in the party - as he anticipates securing the Democratic nomination, as early as next week. Many Clinton backers are already angry at Obama and the party, in part because of the disrespect they believe the media and her rival's surrogates have shown the New York senator and former first lady.
Pfleger's outspokenness and protests, particularly on guns and race, has often drawn attention - and at times arrests - in Chicago and beyond. He has been a political supporter, contributor, and, at times, a spiritual adviser to Obama. Obama, as a state senator, reportedly steered at least $225,000 in grant money to Pfleger's parish. Pfleger has been a staunch defender of Wright and controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
In his statement distancing himself from Pfleger's remarks, Obama said he was "deeply disappointed in Father Pfleger's divisive, backward-looking rhetoric, which doesn't reflect the country I see or the desire of people across America to come together in common cause."
Yesterday, Clinton's campaign and her supporters, while offering a more muted response than they have for past dust-ups, still faulted Obama for not going far enough.
"What I think that Clinton supporters would have wanted was for Barack Obama to say not only that he distanced himself from the comments, but that's not how he views Senator Clinton," said US Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio. "I would have hoped to have him more . . . affirmative in terms of the kind of woman that she is and the kind of what that she's done."
Tubbs Jones also said it was puzzling that in this environment an Obama supporter would choose his words so poorly. "It seems to me that the people who have some connection to him would be smarter than that and they wouldn't reopen old wounds," she said.
Clinton's communications director, Howard Wolfson, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that Pfleger's remarks were "despicable."
"We are all attempting to bring the party together and when you have that kind of divisive and hateful language" it is detrimental to that goal, Wolfson said. "It's important, I think, to the spirit of unity we are all trying to create, for Senator Obama to condemn them specifically."
But in a sign that the rancorous Democratic primary was nearing its end, Clinton backers stressed that Obama should not be held responsible for something a supporter says.
"You can't blame Senator Obama for the statements of the minister at the church," said Kathy Sullivan, former chairwoman of the Democratic Party of New Hampshire. "The important thing is that he apparently pretty quickly said something on this and distanced himself from this, which is a good thing."
Pfleger's church said he was not available for interviews yesterday, but on Thursday it released a statement from him: "I regret the words I chose on Sunday. These words are inconsistent with Senator Obama's life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Senator Clinton or anyone else who saw them."
The flap prompted Cardinal Francis George of the Chicago Archdiocese, who has often clashed with Pfleger, to issue an unusual public condemnation yesterday.
"Racial issues are both political and moral and are also highly charged. Words can be differently interpreted, but Father Pfleger's remarks about Senator Clinton are both partisan and amount to a personal attack," George said. "I regret that deeply. To avoid months of turmoil in the church, Father Pfleger has promised me that he will not enter into campaigning, will not publicly mention any candidate by name and will abide by the discipline common to all Catholic priests."
Joseph Williams of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Helman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.