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Solving the Pastor Problem?

A Commentary By Robert Novak

Thursday, May 01, 2008

That is just terrible, absolutely dreadful," a prominent supporter of Barack Obama said Monday morning after listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's screed at the National Press Club. He proposed that the presidential candidate at long last must denounce his pastor, unequivocally and immediately. It took 28 hours after a tepid early reaction Monday, but Obama finally did it Tuesday afternoon.

Did that solve Obama's pastor problem? Leading Democrats certainly hope so, but they are not sure. His vulnerability transcends relations with a radical preacher. If Obama is seen as not just a presidential candidate who happens to be black but as the black candidate in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he faces a difficult struggle in the general election against John McCain even if he bests Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

The problem goes back to the reaction crafted by Obama and his strategist David Axelrod about two months ago, when videos of Wright's racist sermons were circulated. While insisting that Wright's incendiary remarks were taken out of context, Obama took the high road by delivering a widely praised speech on race in Philadelphia March 18. The issue surfaced again, however, at the widely criticized Obama-Clinton debate April 16, leading Obama to rule out further debates with Clinton. The Obama campaign thought the pastor problem had been put to bed until Wright went on his little road tour.

Obama's danger is being perceived by white voters as representing a hostile separate culture. My friend, the African-American conservative Armstrong Williams, told me, "It is not unusual to hear in many black churches the same language that Rev. Wright is being criticized for." I raised this with NPR reporter-Fox commentator Juan Williams (also black, but no relation to Armstrong). "Not at all," he replied. "It's ridiculous. I never have heard that in church."

Wright's demagoguery is so unique in Juan Williams' view that it was necessary for Obama to separate himself from it two months ago. Instead of orating about race in America, Williams says, Obama should have repented as a "sinner" partaking of lies from the pulpit. It amounted to a post-partisan, post-racial moment lost by the candidate.

Although the Obama camp feared the worst when Wright went on the road last weekend, the preacher was restrained on his first two stops. Bill Moyers (friendly and an ordained Baptist minister) asked polite questions on his PBS program, and Wright reciprocated. He raised his level addressing an NAACP fundraiser in Detroit, but that performance was sufficiently restrained to win commendations even from Clinton supporters. Not until the question-and-answer period at the Press Club did Wright go wild, playing to a raucous black audience.

Obama advisor Susan Rice, appearing on MSNBC immediately after the Press Club spectacle, was visibly unhappy as she disavowed any responsibility for Wright. Soon after, while campaigning in Wilmington, N.C., Obama hardly seemed exercised about Wright, saying merely, "He does not speak for me." The candidate then was urged by advisers to react more firmly.

He did at Winston-Salem, N.C., the next day, calling Wright's performance "divisive and destructive." But Wright's anti-U.S. slanders at the Press Club were only a repetition of Wright's sermons that had not aroused such a disavowal. The difference was that with every word Monday heard over national cable television, Obama no longer could slough off what the preacher said as out of context.

Over the past two years, Obama on occasion has appeared with Wright and praised him as a valued counselor and dear friend of the family. The title of the best-selling "The Audacity of Hope" was taken from a Wright sermon. But Obama on Tuesday summarily dismissed the man who used to be his spiritual mentor as a "pastor," just as Wright had dismissed him as a "politician."

Nobody knows whether Obama's performance inflicted permanent damage on his candidacy, but his supporters hope the issue is out of the news. The difficulty is Jeremiah Wright, thrown under the bus by his former parishioner, can re-emerge at any time he wishes and renew discussion of the Democratic presidential front-runner's real identity.

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