EXCERPT: 'My Fellow Americans' by Michael Waldman

At this moment, cable television stations began saturation airplay of videos featuring incendiary remarks by Obama's minister, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. The pastor was a strong, fierce influence on young Obama. At Wright's church, Obama had a religious epiphany, as he describes in his memoir. The senator borrowed the title of a Wright sermon for his second book: The Audacity of Hope. Wright officiated at his wedding. When Obama announced his candidacy, Wright was due to give the benediction, but the campaign removed him from the program at the last minute.

Now, angry excerpts from Wright's sermons flashed across cable television news programs. The 9/11 attacks, he roared, echoing Malcolm X, were the "chickens coming home to roost." "The government gives [black Americans] the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes the three strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America,'" Wright declared. "No, no, no. Not God Bless America. God Damn America!" The New York Post bannered the story, "Obama's Minister of Hate."

Wright's thundering jeremiads pushed to the surface issues of race, religion, and the ultimate mystery of Obama—who is this guy? Often, campaign aides overreact to the cable maelstrom; it is hard to know whether this was such a moment. But it seemed clear to the campaign then that this could prove fatal to Obama's presidential bid.

Obama called his aides together and said "I want to give a speech on race. From a political standpoint, this is a moment of great peril and requires more than the typical political response. But I have got a lot to say about this and I think it requires a thoughtful speech. It's a speech that only I can write. Either people accept it or they won't, and I may not be president."

The speech would be given four days later, days filled with campaigning. Who would write it? "Don't worry," Obama reassured. "I know what I want to say." He dictated for an hour to his young speechwriter, Jon Favreau. Then he went to work on Favreau's draft. After long days campaigning, Obama retreated to his hotel room, working on his laptop computer, a solitary writer wrestling with his text. "Writing is anything but a small part of Obama's life," observed journalist Robert Draper. "It's basic to who he is." At two in the morning one night he emailed the final text to Favreau and other top aides. Strategist David Axelrod read it and replied: "This is why you should be president."

The next morning Obama spoke before eight flags, a small tense audience, and many more watching on TV. He could have simply denounced Wright's words, and pivoted to his broader campaign themes—which had only implicitly touched on race. Instead, he explained Wright and his anger to a wider audience. He condemned the things Wright had said: "Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity." But he explained,

He contains within him the contradictions—the good and the bad—of the community that he has served diligently for so many years. I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

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