By Joseph P. Williams, Globe Staff
Senator Barack Obama, saying that he'd had enough, forcefully repudiated his former pastor today and declared that racially charged remarks made by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. contradict "all that I stand for."
Obama said he had tried to give Wright "the benefit of the doubt," but decided to disavow Wright after the minister's nationally televised appearance on Monday reignited a lingering controversy on the eve of two crucial Democratic presidential primaries.
The Illinois senator said that Wright's appearance, including his dismissal of Obama's attempts to defuse the controversy as political posturing, "was a show of disrespect to me" and "an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign."
Wright, he added, is no longer "the man I met 20 years ago."
"When I say I found his comments appalling, I mean it," Obama said at a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who read my books, who have seen what this campaign is about will understand it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country."
The condemnation was a dramatic shift for Obama, who had tried to navigate a personal and political minefield: maintaining a relationship to the minister who brought him to Christianity, performed his wedding, and baptized his two daughters, while distancing himself from Wright's most incendiary sermons and trying to quell a controversy that threatened to undermine Obama's campaign's focus on racial unity.
Answering questions submitted by reporters on Monday, Wright praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century," and said it's possible that the US government created the AIDS virus and introduced it into the black community. He also said he's become a victim of "unfair accusations taken from sound bites" which has developed into an "attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African-American religious tradition."
William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said Obama had to disavow Wright, the former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, but added that the controversy has already taken a toll on Obama's campaign. Galston said the most recent polling data shows that Obama's substantial lead over Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, is narrowing in North Carolina and that Clinton is gaining ground in a neck-and-neck race in Indiana.
"I would be surprised if [Obama's statements] made it go away. It's certainly helpful," he said. "But I think that Senator Obama will be lucky if this dies down before people are voting in the primaries" on Tuesday.
The timing is difficult for Obama, the first African American with a legitimate shot at winning the presidency. Walking a fine line between his heritage and his attempt to run a racially transcendent campaign, Obama has struggled to win over white, working-class voters -- the key, analysts say, to defeating Clinton and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in the fall campaign -- and the Wright controversy could alienate those voters further.
Obama has been grappling with the controversy since early March, when videos of Wright's thundering sermons condemning the nation for past injustices began showing up on the Internet. Obama initially downplayed the controversy, but eventually delivered a widely-praised speech March 18 in Philadelphia on race -- perhaps the most significant address of his candidacy.
In it, Obama said both blacks and whites have legitimate race-based grievances, but none are blameless when it comes to prolonging racial tensions. However, he took a hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner stance with Wright: he rejected his inflammatory rhetoric but praised his work with the downtrodden and compared him to family.
''I can no more disown [Wright] than I can disown my white grandmother,'' who loved and sacrificed for him but feared black men and "more than once has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe,'' Obama said.
After keeping a low profile while the controversy erupted, Wright broke his silence with a series of high-profile appearances to defend himself. He followed a lengthy interview Friday on the PBS news program "Bill Moyers Journal" with speeches before the NAACP in Detroit on Sunday and the National Press Club in Washington on Monday.
Though Wright's speeches called for tolerance and sought to explain the black church tradition, his defiant question-and-answer session Monday made national headlines and drew Obama's ire.
Forceful, sarcastic, and at times flippant, Wright generally stood by the remarks and sermons critics say are inflammatory -- including declarations that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were retaliation for US policies overseas and a thundering call of "God damn America" made from the pulpit.
That remark, from April 2003, is the centerpiece of a Republican attack ad that is to air in North Carolina.
At his press conference today, Obama said he was aware of Wright's appearance at the Press Club on Monday, but did not see a videotape of it until this morning.
Using his harshest language yet, Obama called Wright's remarks "divisive and destructive" and warned that they "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate" and do a disservice to the black church.
"They certainly donít portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks thatís political posturing, as he put it, then he doesnít know me very well," Obama said. "And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought, either."
Noting that he's already denounced his most controversial sermons, "I gave [Wright] the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia, explaining that he has done enormous good in the church," Obama said.
But when Wright stands behind "such ridiculous propositions" as he did on Monday, "then there are no excuses," said Obama, disputing media descriptions of Wright as his spiritual mentor.
"They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans. And they should be denounced," he said.
There was no immediate response from Wright. Reached today, the Rev. Joan Harrell, Trinity United's minister of communication, said the church "does not have a comment at this time."
Obama said the matter has been a distraction from "critical issues like energy, and health care, and education, and the war on terrorism" and obscures his message of national unity. That Wright would decide "to command the stage for three or four consecutive days" at this point in the campaign, he said, "not only makes me angry, but also saddened."
At Obama's first campaign event after the news conference, a packed rally in small-town Hickory, N.C., several voters said they didn't know or didn't care what Wright had said.
"They're two different people saying two different things. The TV has just run this into the ground,'' said Jim Yarrow, a 64-year-told retired white man from nearby Bethlehem.
Avery Graham, a 32-year-old African American restaurant owner, added, "Everybody's pastor says stuff sometimes that's kind of fiery. It's all politics -- if you don't like Obama, you're going to look at this critically. If you like Obama, as we do,'' he added, gesturing to his wife, 31-year-old Chanika Graham, "you're going to look past it."
Obama, himself, sounded much like a preacher himself -- with voters shouting back affirmations and cheers of approval in response to his remarks in which he barely mentioned the Wright flap.
Critics say, "he's not wearing a flag pin right now,'' or "his former pastor said some crazy stuff,'' Obama told the crowd.
"You want to know who I am,'' Obama added softly, then retold his personal story of being raised by a single mother and his grandparents, then working his way to become a lawyer and senator.
"In no other country is my story even possible,'' Obama said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.