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In his highly praised and closely critiqued speech on race in America in Philadelphia last month, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama took 37 minutes to dissect his views on race in America and the need for improved dialog and his controversial relationship with his outspoken pastor of two decades, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.
As the leading candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Obama was under extreme and mounting pressure to distance himself from the inflammatory remarks of Wright.
They included denunciations of America, appearing to suggest the United States invited the 9/11 attacks and charging that the federal government invented the AIDS epidemic to commit genocide against people of color.
Obama said he had not heard the worst comments and did not specify which Wright remarks he was describing, but "condemned" the "statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy." So proud is the Obama organization of that now partially inoperative address that as of last night it was still offering a DVD of the speech in return for a minimum $30 campaign donation.
At the same time Obama also said of Wright: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community."
Tuesday, after Wright's speech and news conference in Washington, Obama did just that. "The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.
"They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.
"And if Rev. Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either."
Obama's complete news conference remarks are published below after the jump, along with a third poll question. And as always on The Ticket, the comment line is open for dialogue.
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Complete Text of Sen. Barack Obama's Statement and News Conference on Rev. Jeremiah Wright
Winston-Salem, N.C. April 30, 2008.
Before I start taking questions I want to open it up with a couple of comments about what we saw and heard yesterday. I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people.
That’s in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings. That’s who I am. That’s what I believe. That’s what this campaign has been about.
Yesterday we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. You know, I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I have known Rev. Wright for almost 20 years.
The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.
And if Rev. Wright thinks that that’s political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn’t know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I may not know him as well as I thought either.
Now, I’ve already denounced the comments that had appeared in these previous sermons. As I said, I had not heard them before. And I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia, explaining that he has done enormous good in the church, he’s built a wonderful congregation, the people of Trinity are wonderful people, and what attracted me has always been their ministry’s reach beyond the church walls.
But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. government somehow being involved in AIDS; when he suggests that Minister Farrakhan somehow represents one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st century; when he equates the United States’ wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that’s what I’m doing very clearly and unequivocally here today.
Let me just close by saying this, I — we started this campaign with the idea that the problems that we face as a country are too great to continue to be divided; that, in fact, all across America people are hungry to get out of the old, divisive politics of the past.
I have spoken and written about the need for us to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race or religion or region of the country; that the only way we can deal with critical issues like energy and healthcare and education and the war on terrorism is if we are joined together. And the reason our campaign has been so successful is because we had moved beyond these old arguments.
What we saw yesterday out of Rev. Wright was a resurfacing and, I believe, an exploitation of those old divisions. Whatever his intentions, that was the result. It is antithetical to our campaign, it is antithetical to what I am about, it is not what I think America stands for, and I want to be very clear that, moving forward, Rev. Wright does not speak for me, he does not speak for our campaign.
I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks, but what I do want him to be very clear about, as well as all of you and the American people, is that when I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am. And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign’s about, I think will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country.
Last point, I’m particularly distressed that this has caused such a distraction from what this campaign should be about, which is the American people. Their situation is getting worse. And this campaign has never been about me. It’s never been about Sen. Clinton or John McCain. It’s not about Rev. Wright.
People want some help in stabilizing their lives and securing a better future for themselves and their children, and that’s what we should be talking about.
And the fact that Rev. Wright would think that somehow it was appropriate to command the stage for three or four consecutive days in the midst of this major debate is something that not only makes me angry, but also saddens me. So with that, let me take some questions. Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Why the change in tone from yesterday when you spoke to us on the tarmac yesterday?
A: I’ll be honest with you, because I hadn’t seen it yet.
Q: That was the difference?
Q: Have you heard the reports about the AIDS comment?
A: I had not. I had not seen the transcript. What I had heard was that he had given a performance and I thought, at the time that it would be sufficient to reiterate what I had said in Philadelphia. Upon watching it, what became clear to me was that it was more than just a — it was more than just him defending himself.
What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that — that’s — that contradicts who I am and what I stand for and what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion, somehow, that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I’m about knows that I’m about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the commonality in all people.
And so when I start hearing comments about conspiracy theories and AIDS and suggestions that somehow Minister Farrakhan is — has been a great voice in the 20th century, then that goes directly at who I am and what I believe this country needs. Jeff?
Q: What do you expect or what do you plan do about this right now, to further distance yourself? Do you think you need to do that? What does that say about your judgment for superdelegates who are trying to decide which Democratic nominee is better? Your candidacy has been based on judgment. What does this say?
A: Well, look, as I said before, the person I saw yesterday was not the person that I had come to know over 20 years. I understand that I think he was pained and angered from what had happened previously during the first stage of this controversy. I think he felt vilified and attacked, and I understand that he wanted to defend himself. You know, I understand that, you know, he’s gone through difficult times of late and that he’s leaving his ministry after many years.
And so, you know, that may account for the change but the insensitivity and the outrageousness of his statements and his performance in the question-and-answer period yesterday, I think, shocked me. It surprised me.
As I said before, this is an individual who has built a very fine church and a church that is well-respected throughout Chicago. During the course of me attending that church, I had not heard those kinds of statements being made or those kinds of views being promoted.
And I did not vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency. I was a member of the church. So, you know, I think what it says is that, you know, I have not — you know, I did not run through — run my pastor through the paces or review every one of the sermons that he had made over the last 30 years, but I don’t think that anybody could attribute those ideas to me.
Q: What affect do you think it’s going to have on your campaign?
A: That’s something that you guys will have to figure out. Obviously we’ve got elections in four or five days. So we’ll find out, you know, what impact it has. Ultimately, I think that the American people know that we have to do better than we’re doing right now. I think that they believe in the ideas of this campaign. I think they are convinced that special interests have dominated Washington too long. I think they are convinced that we’ve got to get beyond some of the same political games that we’ve been playing.
I think they believe that we need to speak honestly and truthfully about how we’re going to solve issues like energy or healthcare and I believe that this campaign has inspired a lot of people. And that’s part of what, you know, going back to what you asked, Mike, about why I feel so strongly about this today.
You know, after seeing Rev. Wright’s performance, I felt as if there was a complete disregard for what — for what the American people are going through and the need for them to rally together to solve these problems. You know, now is the time for us not to get distracted. Now is the time for us to pull together, and that’s what we’ve been doing in this campaign and you know, there was a sense that that did not matter to Rev. Wright. What mattered was him commanding center stage.
Q: Did you have a conversation with Rev. Wright?
Q: What’s going to happen with the distraction?
A: I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Rev. Wright has changed, as a consequence of this. I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. I don’t — more importantly — I don’t think he showed much concern for what we’re trying to do in this campaign and what we’re trying to do for the American people and with the American people
And obviously, he’s free to speak out on issues that are of concern to him and he can do it in any ways that he wants. But I feel very strongly that — well, I want to make absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to the views that he expressed. I believe they are wrong. I think they are destructive. And to the extent that he continues to speak out, I do not expect those views to be attributed to me.
Q: I’m wondering, I don’t know what — I’m wondering — [inaudible]
A: Well, the new pastor, the young pastor, Rev. Otis Moss, is a wonderful, young pastor. And as I said, I still very much value the Trinity community. This — I’ll be honest, this obviously has put strains on that relationship, not because of the members or because of Rev. Moss, but because this has become such a spectacle. And, you know, when I go to church, it’s not for spectacle, it’s to pray and to find — to find a stronger sense of faith. It’s not to posture politically.
It’s not to — you know, it’s not to hear things that violate my core beliefs. And so, you know, and I certainly done want to provide a distraction for those who are worshiping at Trinity. So as of this point, I’m a member of Trinity. I haven’t had a discussion with Rev. Moss about it, so I can’t tell you how he’s reacting and how he’s responding. OK? Kathy?
Q: Senator, I’m wondering to sort of follow on Jeff’s question about why it’s different now. Have you heard from some of your supporters, you know, you have supporters who expressed any alarm about what this might be doing to the campaign?
A: Look, I mean, I don’t think that it’s that hard to figure out from if it was just a purely political perspective. You know, my reaction has more to do with what I want this campaign to be about and who I am. And I want to make certain that people understand who I am.
You know, in some ways what Rev. Wright said yesterday, directly contradicts everything that I’ve done during my life. It contradicts how I was raised and the setting in which I was raised. It contradicts my decisions to pursue a career of public service. It contradicts the issues that I’ve worked on politically. It contradicts what I’ve said in my books.
It contradicts what I said in my convention speech in 2004. It contradicts my announcement. It contradicts everything that I’ve been saying on this campaign trail. And what I tried to do in Philadelphia was to provide a context and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America of which, you know, Rev. Wright is a part, and we’re all a part, and try to make something constructive out of it. But there wasn’t anything constructive out of yesterday.
All it was, was a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth. And you know, I can construct something positive out of that. I can understand it. I, you know, the — you know, the people do all sorts of things and, as I said before, I continue to believe that Rev. Wright has been a leader in the South Side. I think that the church he built is outstanding. I think that he has preached in the past some wonderful sermons. He provided, you know, valuable contributions to my family.
But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that’s enough. That’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s — it is also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.
Q: Did you discuss with your wife after having seen Rev. Wright …
A: Yeah, she was similarly angered. Joe?
Q: Rev. Wright said it’s not an attack on him but an attack on the black church. First of all, do you agree with that? Second of all, the strain of theology that he preached, black liberation theology, can you explain something about the anger and the sentiments, how important a strain is liberation theology and why …
A: Well, the -– first of all of all, in terms of liberation theology, I’m not a theologian. So I think to some theologians there might be some well-worked-out theory of what constitutes liberation theology versus non-liberation theology. I went to church and listened to sermons, and the — in the sermons that I heard — and this is true, I do think, across the board in many black churches — there is an emphasis on the importance of social struggle, the importance of striving for equality and justice and fairness, a social gospel.
So a lot of people would, rather than using a fancy word like that, simply talk about preaching the social gospel and that — there’s nothing particularly odd about that. Dr. King, obviously, was the most prominent example of that kind of preaching. But you know, what I do think can happen, and I didn’t see this as a member of the church, but I saw it yesterday, is when you start focusing so much on the plight of the historically oppressed that you lose sight of what we have in common, that it overrides everything else, that we’re not concerned about the struggles of others because we’re looking at things only through a particular lens, then it doesn’t describe properly what I believe in: the power of faith to overcome but also to bring people together. Now, you had a first question that I don’t remember.
Q: Do you think [inaudible]
A: You know, I did not — I did not view the initial round of sound bites that triggered this controversy as an attack on the black church. I viewed it as a simplification of who he was, a caricature of who he was. And, you know, more than anything, something that piqued a lot of political interest.
I didn’t see it as an attack on the black church. I mean, probably the only aspect of it that probably had to do with specifically the black church is the fact that some people were surprised when he was shouting. I mean, that is just a black church tradition. And so I think some people interpreted that as somehow, wow, he’s really hollering and black preachers holler and so that, I think, showed a cultural gap in America.
The sad thing is that, although the sound bites I, as I stated, I think, created a caricature of him and when he was in that Moyers interview though there were some things that, you know, continued to be offensive, at least there was some sense of rounding out the edges. Yesterday, I think he caricatured himself and that was — as I said, that made me angry, but also made me sad. Richard?
Q: [inaudible] talk about giving the benefit of the doubt or the Philadelphia speech and trying to create something close to that. Did you consult with him before the speech or after the speech in Philadelphia to get his reaction?
A: I tried to talk to him before the speech in Philadelphia. Wasn’t able to reach him, because he was on a — he was on a cruise. He had just stepped down from the pulpit. When he got back, I did speak to him and the — you know, I prefer not to share sort of private conversations between me and him.
I will talk to him perhaps someday in the future. But what I can say is that I was very clear that what he had said in those particular snippets, I found objectionable and offensive. And that the intention of the speech was to provide context for them but not to excuse them because I found them inexcusable.
Q: on Sunday you were asked to respond [inaudible]
A: There’s been great damage. You know, I — it may have been unintentional on his part, but, you know, I do not see that relationship being the same after this. Now, to some degree, you know, I know that one thing that he said was true was that he was never my, quote/unquote spiritual advisor, he was never my spiritual mentor, he was my pastor.
And so to some extent how, you know, the press characterized in the past that relationship, I think was inaccurate. But he was somebody who was my pastor and married Michelle and I and baptized my children and prayed with us when we announced this race. And so, you know, I’m disappointed. All right? thank you, guys."
Photo Credit: Trinity United Church of Christ, 2005.