What should Obama do about Rev. Jeremiah Wright?

With the pastor's latest invective clouding Obama's campaign, Salon turns to a panel of political and cultural experts for answers.

Published April 29, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center and research professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication

Here is how Barack Obama should address Wright's latest comments:

"When I announced my candidacy, I said that Americans were tired of the old politics of division and blame. In the last few days, I have reluctantly been forced to conclude that Rev. Wright's views, and the ways he expresses them, are part of the negative politics that our country needs to transcend. They were forged in our past; they sometimes played a decisive and positive role in our past, but they are not part of the positive future I see. I'm not running for president to lead America back to an era that pits interest against interest, or group against group. I want to lead America forward -- to a common ground, a higher ground. This is not the time to reopen old wounds; it's a time for healing. Rev. Wright is passionate about injustice, and so am I. Rev. Wright has the right to express himself loudly and clearly. But so do I. And anyone who confuses his message with mine fails to understand my message of hope and my promise of reconciliation."

Andrew Sullivan, author of the Daily Dish blog

I have long given a pass to Obama on Wright, because I don't believe in the politics of guilt by association and I understand the difficulty of repudiating a pastor of long standing. I do not know Wright personally but I can believe that he has qualities that would inspire Obama and others to come to Christ. I also think some leeway is valid for the mode of discourse -- prophetic Bible-thumping -- that is under discussion.

But the Press Club display on Monday changes things. It was an attack on Obama; it was divisive and bitter and racist. Embracing Farrakhan at this point was a provocation.

Wright has given Obama no choice. I believe he has to publicly and clearly and irrevocably disown him and say in words that are clear and bright that Wright is now anathema to the campaign. Obama needs to say that he doesn't seek Wright's support under these circumstances and will not accept it. This will doubtless wound Obama. It will prove racially divisive. But Wright was clearly in his speech Monday advocating racial conflict and division. He is also clearly obsessed with the politics of the boomer era, its racial and cultural divides, and seeks to increase those divides, not overcome them.

So I think Obama has to make a speech condemning him, and explaining why his politics are very, very different. He now has the obvious defense that Wright has attacked him and disowned him -- by calling him insincere. So on this, Wright and Bill Kristol agree.

Obama has to disown his own surrogate father. I see no other way forward. It's terrible it has come to this, but the combination of Wright himself and the MSM makes it impossible to avoid. And so Obama has to take a stand.

Read more of my take from Monday, here.

Robert A. George, columnist for the New York Post

This is a problem from which Obama can't easily extract himself. Rev. Wright is Obama's de facto adoptive father (note how Obama's Philadelphia speech triangulated his relationship with Wright, the black community and his white grandmother). Thus, Wright's actions over the last few days carry something of an Oedipal/prodigal son dimension.

Wright's Jekyll and Hyde nature is inevitably damaging to Obama. At his best -- as he was in much of the NAACP speech and with some aspects of the National Press Club appearance -- Wright comes across as a man of some scholarly depth and sense of American history (the good and the bad). At his worst, however (as, arguably, he was during the press club Q-and-A), he comes across as angry, dismissive and flip (not in a good way).

The Obama many Americans have come to appreciate is similar to the "good Wright." What must unnerve many of those who have voted for Obama or are open to voting for him is the fear that there exists a "Mr. Hyde-Wright" lurking in Obama.

But most injurious to Obama are Wright's assertions that he is speaking out to protect the black church from perceived attack. Wright seemingly feels that Obama, in defending their personal relationship (while distancing himself from Wright's rhetoric), has been insufficiently supportive (i.e., "giving witness to") of the good works that the black church (and Trinity United in particular) does for the black community. Wright seems committed to setting that omission straight. It suggests that he believes Obama has let down the church by not publicly defending it from a perceived attack by the larger white culture (i.e., the media).

But the single most damaging statements Wright made aren't about America, 9/11 or AIDS. It is what he says about Obama -- the person so many voters see as a "different" sort of leader. Wright just said of him what Hillary Clinton must have thought was manna from heaven: "He didn't distance himself. He had to distance himself because he's a politician." Of politicians, Wright says, "Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls." In short, politicians are people without integrity.

Thus, he generally undermines the historic nature many see in Obama's message. But, specifically, he eviscerates Obama's almost universally well-received Philadelphia speech on race, turning it into just another political tactic. If the man who coined the phrase "audacity of hope" thinks a member of his congregation is just a politician who says and does things "based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls," why should voters think that politician is any more special than any of the others?

Jabari Asim, editor in chief of the Crisis magazine

I attended Rev. Wright's address Monday and continue to be impressed by him. I first heard him preach more than 20 years ago, when I was in college. I really think his address had little to do with Obama. I found it most instructive in terms of his ability to eloquently and thoroughly lay out the history of the black Christian tradition in the United States -- although as I sat there in a press gallery that was about 90 percent white, I wondered how much of his message was actually sinking in. In my view, he emphasized the black Christian churches' long commitment to liberation, transformation and reconciliation, which he called "a non-negotiable doctrine." I also noted his efforts to show how his church carried out its commitment in the form of church-owned and -operated senior citizens complexes and day-care centers, along with decades-old ministries devoted to HIV/AIDS patients and prisoners. I was somewhat dismayed and embarrassed to sit there as a member of the working press and watch Rev. Wright encounter questions he had already addressed in the course of his speech, as well as others ("Will Muslims go to heaven?" for example) that had no obvious relevance to Wright or his relationship with Obama.

As eloquent, insightful and forthright as Rev. Wright often is, he understands the need for Obama to address the needs of a national, multicultural constituency, and frequently suggested as much. In turn, Obama recognizes that Rev. Wright is entitled to clear his name and set the record straight regarding his comments. Obama should not let his former pastor's public appearances distract him or those who would vote for him from the issues and problems that continue to challenge all Americans, including the failing economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

James Hannaham, Salon staff writer

At this point, there's really no other way for Obama to respond to the continuing scrutiny that Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons have received than to denounce his ideas, and probably the man himself. But it should not be some kind of national news flash that people of color find it cathartic to criticize America in the relative safety of black churches. As crackpot as some of Wright's unpatriotic theories are, he is far from the wackiest of black religious ideologues -- check out the "black supremacist" Nuwaubians, for example, who splintered off from the Black Muslims because the guys in the bow ties weren't radical enough. Don't try looking for an American of African descent who has never, at any point, had at least a brief outburst of beef against the treatment of blacks in this nation, or believed, even momentarily, some paranoid hypothesis. Even Bobby McFerrin, y'all. Better safe than sorry, Mama used to say.

And what exactly is Obama's sin in the first place? The fact that he attends Wright's sermons doesn't mean that he agrees with everything Wright espouses. In fact, Obama's fatal flaw seems to be that he is too inclusive -- he listens to so many opposing viewpoints that he's bound to offend someone by including someone else, as he did with the gay community when he kept Donnie McClurkin on his "Embrace the Change" tour. But surely people realize that listening once a week to half-baked rhetoric and angry invective against the powers that be won't necessarily rub off. Or didn't we have fathers?

Frances Kissling, fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice

As a Roman Catholic liberation theology supporter, I have, for the most part, been enormously impressed with Jeremiah Wright's recent appearances, his passion for the gospels and defense of black liberation theology and the black church. He has spoken hard truth to power as well as uttered some nonsense. He would be remiss if he did not use the media opportunity presented to him to push his biblical and political commitments. I think Wright has made clear that he does not speak for Obama and that he does not care if Obama is elected or not. He marches to a different drummer. It would be great if we lived in a country where Obama (and Clinton) could engage in a discourse with the best of Wright's ideas, while unequivocally rejecting those that are factually incorrect and offensive. Unfortunately we do not live in such a country. Sen. Clinton has totally dismissed Wright; but her vision of a good pastor would exclude even Jesus Christ. Sen. Obama has been more nuanced and appropriately clear that Wright does not represent him. He should move on now, and so should we.

Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for the St. Petersburg Times newspaper

Right now, I'm thinking the best defense is a strong response. As a friend of mine e-mailed me this morning, "Here's the speech I want him to give: 'Gas is $3.60 a gallon, there's a worldwide food shortage, we're stuck in Iraq, 2 million people are losing their homes and your income isn't keeping pace with inflation. And (the pundits are) worried about my former pastor?'"

A bit of righteous indignation might go a long way here. The bottom line is, I don't think there's anyone who knows Obama's campaign well who thinks he secretly holds any of Wright's more controversial views. So the question is: Why does this matter in a presidential contest?

If the issue is judgment about those whom a candidate counts as friends, then Obama should note McCain's relationship with anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic pastor John Hagee or his trip to the racially backward Bob Jones University. Or Hillary Clinton's ties to fugitive-turned-fundraiser Norman Hsu, or million-dollar tax scofflaw-turned-fundraiser Sant Chatwal.

Obama has to dismiss Wright's outrageous statements, get some distance from the man and portray the issue itself as a distraction (which may be hard to do, given that he admitted it was a legitimate campaign issue on Fox News Sunday yesterday).

Unfortunately, Wright's performance Monday makes it difficult for Obama to claim the man has been caricatured -- since Wright did a good job of that by himself. And Obama can't risk offending too many black churchgoers by totally throwing the good pastor under the bus.

I guess that's why I noted in a column Monday that this will put Obama's conciliatory skills to the test. I'm not sure what Obama can do to mitigate the impact of Wright's speech with undecided voters in Indiana, and I'm a native Hoosier.

Todd Gitlin, author and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University

Obama should say that he no more associates himself with Wright's remarks than John McCain (by his own say-so) agrees with John Hagee about Satanic Catholics or righteous Armageddon. He should remind his interlocutors that McCain went looking for Hagee's endorsement while he, Obama, did not do the same with Wright. He should also repeat that he's running for president, and that therefore he wants to talk about the awful Iraq war, the awful economy, the awful Bush years and the danger of extending them with McCain. He should say all this with a smile and his customary grace.

Houston A. Baker Jr., author of "Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideal of the Civil Rights Era" (Columbia University Press, 2008)

Charged at the beginning of a now fateful weekend with being a congregant and faithful supporter of the views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church, Sen. Barack Obama grabbed his pastor's lapels and pushed him under the bus.

The problem with buses is unpredictability. Who has not gazed peevishly up the boulevard hoping what was true five minutes ago has changed: The bus is actually coming. Still, there are no guarantees. Remember the shocked ridership when Rosa Parks tossed Jim Crow under the bus. Or, think how Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves' bus became "the bomb." Certainly, the bus is the ultimate American icon of public space in motion. In current political "pundit speak" it is also the ominous campaign transport of destruction. If you choose to board it and to bring along company, you need both a safety harness and impeccable character judgment. Look at the disaster and shenanigans of Leila and Franz in "Night Bus" as an example of unanchored sentimental judgment. Which brings us to the now of our 24-7 media world. When I worked as an intern reporter at the Washington Post many years ago, senior editors reminded me that in news it is always "today." On April 28, 2008, at precisely 6:16 p.m. CT, the same editors would enjoin: "It is always right now, and the bus is the ultimate political war machine!"

Sen. Obama was concise enough about Wright when the problem first arose: "Get off the bus, Gus!" However, not long after -- and, to my best knowledge, after calls from African-American pastors across America -- Obama piously said he had often been in Trinity's congregation when Rev. Wright verbally assaulted the United States under the guise of black "liberation theology." Yet, he still claimed he found his pastor's more militant views unacceptable, wished to distance himself from them. Then, in political footwork faster than Ali's jabs, he said he could not disavow his intimate, familiar connection with Rev. Wright. It was him throwing Wright under the tires again. Sen. Obama's "race speech" at the National Constitution Center, draped in American flags, was reminiscent of the Parthenon concluding scene of Robert Altman's "Nashville": a bizarre moment of mimicry, aping Martin Luther King Jr., while even further distancing himself from the real, economic, religious and political issues so courageously articulated by King from a Birmingham jail. In brief, Obama's speech was a pandering disaster that threw, once again, his pastor under the bus. So, in the now -- 6:35 p.m. Monday night -- I sit before the flat screen and watch a minstrel, signifying, megalomaniacal, handsomely suited black minister Wright. He has washed the tire tracks off. He shrewdly has magnetically and materialistically affixed himself (like a groomed Greyhound) to the broadside of the Obama bus. There is now very little of a corrective nature that the racially elusive senator from Illinois can say to get rid of his pastor.

Dave Contarino, former presidential campaign manager for Gov. Bill Richardson

Barack Obama is at his best when he speaks past the sound bite and scandal-driven media and directly to the voters -- via his speeches -- which are then distributed primarily through the Internet and more thoughtful outlets. Just as he did with his moving and detailed speech on race that effectively neutralized the Wright controversy -- for a while -- over a month ago, Obama should push aside the media-driven focus on Wright and his comments and return, in a major speech, to what the voters care about: how his kind of change can tangibly improve the lives of real people. He should be specific about how he plans -- and can -- do this, as well as about how media sensationalism only diverts much-needed attention from the real problems of real people.

I anticipated such a speech during the media hype over his "bitter" comments prior to the Pennsylvania primary, but the speech will still work now. He should make it clear that while his opponents and the media may be focused on phony controversies, he is focusing on improving the lives of working Americans and their families, who are struggling every day with real economic challenges. Media superficiality and obsession with personality and pseudo-scandal are as much a part of the current dysfunctional power structure as is special-interest domination of our policy and the negative politics of personal destruction. In the right venue, Obama can push all this aside, including the current Wright flap, and explain to real Americans how he promises to reject this kind of politics and make real change in their lives. He has the ability -- and the need, now more than ever -- to bring it all together for the American people to understand.

By Compiled by Salon staff

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