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A little parsing of Barack Obama's race speech

March 18, 2008 | 10:32 am

Lord knows Barack Obama's Philadelphia speech on race is going to get dissected like a high school biology experiment, but one element jumped out as he delivered it a little while ago. Earlier, Obama said he had never himself heard the Rev. Jeremiah Wright make the kinds of comments that sparked the furor over the last several days.

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama of Illinois speaks in Philadelphia on the issue of race and his relationship with the controversial black nationalist pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ

But in this morning's speech, Obama said this about Wright:

"For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely -– just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."

It's not quite a repudiation of his earlier comments published on Huffington Post. In that piece Obama wrote:

"The statements that Rev. Wright made that are the cause of this controversy were not statements I personally heard him preach while I sat in the pews of Trinity or heard him utter in private conversation. When these statements first came to my attention, it was at the beginning of my presidential campaign."

The difference is that Obama said then, essentially, that he had not witnessed the sermons captured in videos now posted on YouTube. But his comments today raise the question, to paraphrase history: What did he hear, and when? And what did he hear during Wright's sermons that "could be controversial?" If he disagreed with them, why didn't those comments move Obama to repudiate Wright then? Especially since the campaign knew Wright could pose a problem.

Obama supporters will argue that such questions are focusing on the trees instead of the forest. Given Obama's attempt to direct the campaign forward, that may be a fair take on it all. But to get into the forest, you have to pass those first few trees.

-- Scott Martelle

UPDATE: Judging by reader comments, many of you missed our earlier post about the broader aspects of the speech, available here.

Photo: Scott Brandon / Associated Press

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