News Analysis

Candidate faces down his former pastor, but what took so long?

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. criticized Barack Obama at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday. The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. criticized Barack Obama at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Monday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter S. Canellos
Globe Staff / April 30, 2008

The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. had said it all before: how God damns America for its unfairness, how American policies brought on the 9/11 attacks, how Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is a great American, and more.

But for weeks, Barack Obama portrayed such statements as isolated soundbites, deeply offensive to him, but nonetheless taken out of context by political enemies to create a negative impression of an otherwise caring pastor. It wasn't until Wright took to the airwaves over the past week to defend himself and take fresh ownership of the statements that Obama became fed up.

Now, after Obama's uncategorical repudiation yesterday of the man who presided at his wedding and the baptism of his daughters, voters and other political observers will inevitably wonder what took so long - and how Obama could have misjudged someone to whom he was very close.

After all, politicians are constantly confronted with these kinds of controversies. Obama initially chose to offer only a relatively mild condemnation of Wright, and to portray all the hubbub about his comments as an example of the kinds of distractions that mar political life.

Wright, with his defiance in three consecutive appearances over the weekend, made Obama look foolish. And not least because it took him so long to face Wright down.

"Every political strategist says if you have to take your medicine, better to take it sooner than later," said Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College political scientist.

Obama, who has tried to separate himself from "politics as usual," didn't follow this nostrum. His first attempt to respond to Wright's comments - in his closely watched speech on race last month - aimed to place the offensive comments in the context of America's racial divide.

"It was an important speech for a black man who wants to be president, but it didn't directly address the difficult situation with Reverend Wright," Fowler said.

By maintaining his association with Wright while the controversy percolated, Obama gave his political enemies a chance to tie him to Wright's statements. While his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, fanned the flames by declaring that she would have walked out of Wright's church, there is little doubt that this is a controversy that would have erupted whether or not Clinton was in the race.

Long ago, Obama had tacitly acknowledged that Wright was destined to become a potential flashpoint by disinviting him to his campaign kickoff in early 2007. But while Obama may have anticipated that the political spotlight would one day focus on some of Wright's fiery sermons - though Obama says he didn't know of the most controversial statements - he surely didn't envision the damage inflicted by Wright himself.

Obama's personal pastor did more than anyone else to take the glow off his campaign by dismissing the Illinois senator as just "a politician."

"He goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician," Wright said in his interview Friday night with PBS journalist Bill Moyers. "I continue to be a pastor who speaks to the people of God about the things of God."

On Monday, at the National Press Club in Washington, Wright took another shot: "I said to Barack Obama last year, 'If you get elected, November the 5th, I'm coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.' "

If Wright really had issued such a warning, Obama should have smelled trouble immediately. His failure to do so, and his decision to portray Wright as a distraction, inevitably raises the question of whether Obama is too naive to be president - the very insinuation he ridicules on the campaign trail.

Obama's next opportunity to claim the Democratic presidential nomination will be on Tuesday, when North Carolina and Indiana go to the polls. Both are winnable states for Obama, but Clinton will no doubt press her argument that she alone is tough enough to handle Republican attacks.

Wright - and Obama - have given her some powerful ammunition.

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