NY Times | Senator Barack Obama broke forcefully on Tuesday with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., in an effort to curtail a drama of race, values, patriotism and betrayal that has enveloped his presidential candidacy at a critical juncture.
At a news conference here, Mr. Obama denounced remarks Mr. Wright made in a series of televised appearances over the last several days. In the appearances, Mr. Wright has suggested that the United States was attacked because it engaged in terrorism on other people and that the government was capable of having used the AIDS virus to commit genocide against minorities. His remarks also cast Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, in a positive light.
In tones sharply different from those Mr. Obama used on Monday, when he blamed the news media and his rivals for focusing on Mr. Wright, and far harsher than those he used in his speech on race in Philadelphia last month, Mr. Obama tried to cut all his ties to – and to discredit – Mr. Wright, the man who presided at Mr. Obama’s wedding and baptized his two daughters.
“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,” Mr. Obama said, his voice welling with anger. “They certainly don’t portray accurately my values and beliefs.”
One week before Democratic primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, contests that party officials are watching as they try to gauge whether Mr. Obama or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the stronger nominee, the controversy surrounding Mr. Wright again erupted into a threat to Mr. Obama’s ability to show that he could unify the Democratic Party and bring the nominating contest to a quick and clean end. With Mrs. Clinton having shown particular strength among working-class white voters in recent big-state primaries, the racial overtones of Mr. Obama’s links with Mr. Wright have been especially troublesome for the Obama campaign.
Asked how the controversy would affect voters, Mr. Obama said: “We’ll find out.”
At a minimum, the spectacle of Mr. Wright’s multiday media tour and Mr. Obama’s rolling response grabbed the attention of the most important constituency in politics now: the uncommitted superdelegates – party officials and elected Democrats – who hold the balance of power in the nominating battle.
Eileen Macoll, a Democratic county chairman from Washington State who has not chosen a candidate, said she was stunned at the extent of national attention the episode has drawn, and she said she believed it would give superdelegates pause.
“I’m a little surprised at how much traction it is getting, and I do believe it is beginning to reflect negatively on Senator Obama’s campaign,” Ms. Macoll said. “I think he’s handling it very well, but I think it’s almost impossible to make people feel comfortable about this.”
It was the second straight day that Mr. Obama had responded to Mr. Wright, a former pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago whose derisive comments about the United States government have become a fixture of cable television. Saying that he had not seen or read Mr. Wright’s remarks when he responded to them on Monday, Mr. Obama said he was “shocked and surprised” when he later read the transcripts and watched the broadcasts, and he felt compelled to respond more forcefully.
“I’m outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday,” Mr. Obama said. He added: “I find these comments appalling. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am.”
The press conference came in what may well be the toughest stretch of Mr. Obama’s campaign as he grapples with questions about Mr. Wright as well as the fallout from his defeat last week in Pennsylvania. He set out this week to reintroduce himself but instead found himself competing for airtime with Mr. Wright and trying to bat away suggestions that he shared or tolerated Mr. Wright’s views.
As he answered question after question here, Mr. Obama appeared downcast and subdued as he tried to explain why he had decided to categorically denounce his minister of 20 years. His decision to address reporters not only stretched the Wright story into another day but also marked at least the third time he has sought to deal with the issue, including his well-received speech on race last month in Philadelphia.
“The fact that Reverend 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,” Mr. Obama said.
Even amid the wall-to-wall news coverage about Mr. Wright, Mr. Obama won the support of two more superdelegates, including Representative Ben Chandler of Kentucky. Meanwhile, Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gov. Michael F. Easley of North Carolina announced their support for Mrs. Clinton.
The first real evidence of whether the controversy has extracted a political price could come on Tuesday. Superdelegates suggested that they would watch closely to see how voters respond in the Indiana and North Carolina primaries and beyond.
Bob Mulholland, a superdelegate from California, said the difficulties Mr. Obama had experienced put a premium on results in the remaining contests.
“We’ve got nine elections to go through June 9,” Mr. Mulholland said in an interview. “I’ve never been involved in a successful presidential race where the candidate had no trouble in the primary. It’s challenging to him. He is a young man, and this is the first time he’s run for president. I see this as a learning experience.”
Asked how he thought Mr. Obama was doing, Mr. Mulholland paused before responding. “Getting better,” he finally said.
The appearances by Mr. Wright, which began Friday and concluded Monday, were anticipated by the Obama campaign, but aides said they were taken aback by the tenor of the remarks. His first interview, with Bill Moyers on PBS, offered few hints of what he intended when he arrived at the National Press Club on Monday.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s a show of disrespect to me. It’s also, I think, an insult to what we’ve been trying to do in this campaign.”
Mr. Obama became a Christian after hearing a 1988 sermon of Mr. Wright’s called “The Audacity to Hope.” Joining Mr. Wright’s church helped Mr. Obama, with his disparate racial and geographic background, embrace not only the African-American community but also Africa, his friends and family say.
Mr. Obama had barely known his Kenyan father; Mr. Wright made pilgrimages to Africa and incorporated its rituals into worship. Mr. Obama toted recordings of Mr. Wright’s sermons to law school. Mr. Obama titled his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention “The Audacity of Hope,” and gave his next book the same name.
As Mr. Wright’s more incendiary statements began circulating widely, Mr. Obama routinely condemned them but did not disassociate himself from Mr. Wright. In his speech in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama tried to explain his pastor through the bitter history of American race relations.
Five weeks later, the men seem finished with each other.
“Whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday. “I don’t think that he showed much concern for me. 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.”