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The Rev. Jeremiah Wright was an early concern, Obama aide admits

March 16, 2008 |  4:18 pm

After he moved to Chicago in the mid-1980s to work as a community organizer, Barack Obama forged close ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- joining the pastor’s Trinity United Church of Christ in 1988 and using the topic of a Wright sermon, "the audacity of hope," as the title of his most recent best-selling book.

But more than a year ago -- long before some of Wright’s more incendiary sermons became hot-button videos on YouTube, forcing Obama to publicly renounce his pastor last week -- the Obama campaign had a sense that Wright's sharp tongue might spell trouble for the Illinois senator.  (For a sermon sample, click on the Read more line below.)

That was the word anyway Sunday from Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, who acknowledged during a conference call with reporters that Wright was disinvited ...

from Obama's official candidacy announcement on Feb. 10, 2007, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

Wright had been expected to lead an invocation of some kind, but never appeared.

“There was no doubt that there was controversy surrounding him,” Axelrod said Sunday.  “And we didn’t want to expose him … [or] make him the target and a distraction on a day when Sen. Obama was going to announce his candidacy.”

So if the savvy Obama campaign knew Wright was a problem a year ago, why did the Illinois senator, a parish member for two decades, wait until last week to disassociate and denounce the minister's inflammatory statements?

The topic is clearly uncomfortable for Obama and his aides, personally and politically. Axelrod's comments came only after prodding from a reporter and after he had initially suggested that Wright’s absence that day was due merely to the fact that the temperature was in the single digits.

And even as Obama has condemned some of Wright’s rhetoric and distanced himself from his longtime spiritual advisor, doing so has not been easy.  Wright remained on an African American religious advisory committee for the campaign until Friday.

“Rev. Wright married him, introduced him, as he said, to the church, brought him into the church, into Christianity, baptized his children,” Axelrod said.  “So this is a painful thing for him because he condemns the things Rev. Wright said, but he also knows him as a person.”

Wright has proven controversial in the past because of his association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made anti-Semitic remarks.  But the controversy has grown in recent weeks with the spread of videos from Wright sermons where he condemns the United States for its foreign policy and treatment of blacks and takes on Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.

As Wright put it, “Hillary ain't never been called a nigger!  Hillary has never had her people defined as non-person."

On Friday, Obama posted a message at the Huffington Post website, explaining that he had not seen such sermons in person and saying that he disagreed with them.  "I vehemently disagree and strongly condemn the statements that have been the subject of this controversy," he wrote.

-- Peter Wallsten

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