April 30, 2008 — -- Politics took a deep, personal cut for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday when the Democratic presidential candidate disowned his longtime pastor, the man with whom Obama shared some of the most important events of his life.
But the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright left Obama little choice.
In the last few days, Wright's inflammatory rhetoric all but drowned out Obama's message, upstaging the candidate at a time when he has been struggling to win over white, working-class voters.
The fallout has also threatened Obama's electability in the eyes of many superdelegates.
On Monday, Wright defiantly defended his controversial remarks in a speech at the National Press Club. On Tuesday, just a week before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, Obama denounced Wright in his strongest terms yet, calling his behavior "outrageous" and a "spectacle."
"Obviously, whatever relationship I had with Rev. Wright has changed as a consequence of this," Obama said during a news conference in Winston-Salem, N.C.
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person I met 20 years ago," the Illinois senator said. "His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but they end up giving comfort to those that prey on hate."
Clips of the pastor's controversial sermons have become a constant loop on television and the Internet, providing fodder for Obama's political opponents.
Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington on Monday, Wright called the recent criticism surrounding his sermons "an attack on the black church."
"This is not about Obama, McCain, Hillary, Bill or Chelsea, this is about the black church," Wright said before an enthusiastic audience of black church leaders at the start of a two-day symposium.
Throughout his speech and a subsequent question-and-answer session, Wright defiantly argued that many of his critics had not heard his whole sermons and that the media had twisted his words.
Wright vigorously defended himself against accusations he is unpatriotic, but in Washington he compared U.S. troops to the Roman legions that killed Christ, praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and suggested that the AIDS epidemic was a racist plot.
Obama rejected those comments outright Tuesday.
"It was more than just defending himself," Obama said. "What became clear was that he was presenting a worldview that contradicts who I am and what I stand for."
"When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions, such 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 U.S. wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans and they should be denounced," Obama said.
Obama's public denunciation of the retired pastor stands in stark contrast to a speech on race the candidate delivered just last month.
"What Rev. Wright said [on Monday] directly contradicts everything I have ever done during my life," Obama said.
In his widely lauded speech on race before the Pennsylvania primary, Obama took an entirely different tone, making clear that while he disagreed with some of the sentiments Wright espoused in sermons, he would not "disown" a man he considered to be "like family to me."
"He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding and baptized my children," Obama said in that speech. "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."
But Wright criticized Obama on Monday, saying, "I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do. I am not running for office," suggesting Obama's previous criticisms of Wright's sermons — including that speech on race relations in Philadelphia — were insincere.
For Obama, Wright's notion that he distanced himself simply because he's a politician seems to have clinched it.
"If the Rev. Wright thinks that's just political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well, and based on his remarks [on Monday], well, I may not know him as well as I thought either," Obama said.
Obama did not say whether he would stop attending Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago. A new pastor, the Rev. Otis Moss, recently took over for Wright, after Wright's retirement from the pulpit.
Obama's strong words are a high-stakes gamble by his campaign to control a spreading political firestorm.
On "Good Morning America" today, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos said Obama addressed Wright head-on because the campaign was "worried this was posing a mortal threat to the nomination."
Wright's rhetoric was nothing new, Stephanopoulos said, "A big difference was that Wright left the impression that Obama secretly agreed with him. Obama couldn't afford to let that stand."
Many party insiders say that Wright gave Obama no choice and that his decision to distance himself from Wright, Tuesday, showed courage.
"I thought it took a lot of courage for a man to have to say some unequivocal statements against someone that has been dear to him, his pastor," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who sought the Democratic Party's nomination in 2004.
"And to say it, knowing that he's going to take a lot of flak from certain elements and certain portions of his base political constituency," Sharpton said. "But I think whether one agrees with him or not, he spoke his conscience."
"I didn't vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency," Obama said.
Nevertheless, the political damage may be done. In some ways, Obama's break with Wright is what — in politics — they now call a "Sister Souljah moment" — referring to Bill Clinton's denunciation of a rap singer in 1992, breaking with the base to appeal to centrist voters.
But Obama's connection to Wright runs much deeper than Clinton's to Sister Souljah. This was, after all, the pastor who officiated at his wedding and baptized his daughters.
"I will talk to him, perhaps, some day in the future," Obama said Tuesday, "but, you know, I do not see that relationship being the same after this."