Last May, in the heat of the Democratic primary and coming off of a disastrous showing in the Pennsylvania primary, Barack Obama reversed course and publicly denounced his controversial pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, after refusing to do so the month before. In his now famous Philadelphia speech on race relations, Obama said he could no more disown Wright than he could disown the black community. Wright then made an appearance at the National Press Club on April 28th, one week after the Pennsylvania primary, in which he refused to recant his controversial sermons, the revelation of which had brought pressure on the Obama campaign. Soon after, Obama would disown him, using the pretext of Wright’s affirmation of his sermons as the reason for his change of mind.
Wright disappeared from the campaign after that, disproving speculation that he was out to destroy Obama’s campaign out of anger at his former charge’s repudiation. At the time, I questioned whether it was all a set up. Did Obama and Wright conspire together to get Wright and the controversy surrounding Obama’s 20-year attendance at his Trinity United Church out of the news in advance of the crucial North Carolina and Indiana primaries? Now, there may be proof.
This is what I speculated on May 2nd, three days after Obama denounced his former pastor:
Here’s how the theory goes. When Wright’s controversial sermons…were made public, the Obama campaign took the occasion to have the candidate make a big speech on race relations. The speech was delivered in Philadelphia, the better to help Obama calm the fears of rural, white, working-class Democrats, to whom he now looked a little more like a sixties radical than an agent of a new kind of politics. It was expected that Obama would distance himself from his firebrand pastor. But he didn’t…Far from distancing himself, Obama drew closer to Wright. […]
Obama lost Pennsylvania by 10 points on April 22nd…Faced with the sudden realization that his campaign was foundering among rural whites, and with four heavily rural states next to vote, Obama needed a way to reach out to that crucial Democratic demographic.
But for the post-partisan Obama to suddenly turn on his pastor, mentor, and friend of more than 20 years would have seemed too opportunistic, too old politics. He needed to find a way to denounce Wright without having it be seen as politically motivated. […]
Less cynical observers say that the new Wright controversy is too damaging for Obama’s campaign to be a political ploy…But it has been three days since Obama’s dismissal of Wright, and there has been no word from the Reverend. If Wright remains silent through Monday, consider it a certainty that he is executing a plan designed to give Obama the political cover to opportunistically deny him. There may never be proof of coordination, but there seems to be a lot of winking and nodding going on.
In his forthcoming book on the 2008 campaign, Richard Wolfe reports that Obama and Wright met between the Pennsylvania and North Carolina primaries at Wright’s home in suburban Chicago. The Obama campaign set up the meeting with the express goal of getting Wright to end his public appearances. The meeting was not reported in the press.
Wolfe’s account of the discussion between the besieged pastor and the beleaguered candidate leaves plenty of questions. Wolfe says Obama, “adopt[ed] the tone of a concerned friend giving advice,” and tried to, “nudge [Wright] in the right direction by making him aware of what was about to happen.” The account is silent about whether the two men discussed the campaign. But coming off a loss in a heavily rural state, and heading into two more contests in heavily rural battleground states, is it really much of a stretch to surmise that Obama asked Wright to get out of the way?
The proof, of course, is that Wright did exactly that. He made no more public appearances after his National Press Club speech. There was no attempt to destroy Obama’s campaign. And thanks to Republican John McCain’s decision not to make Wright an issue, Obama did not have to face serious questions about his former pastor again during the campaign.
Complicit in this deception is the mainstream media, which clearly was not paying close enough attention to Obama to know of the meeting. Considering the intensity of the Wright story and the Democratic primary, the meeting would have been blockbuster news. Somehow, Obama was able to meet with the most controversial figure in the campaign, on the cusp of two critically important primaries, at his home, and not one media outlet reported on it.
All of this calls into question whether Obama was telling the truth in his embrace of Wright in Philadelphia, or in his denunciation of him the following month; and whether Wright’s National Press Club appearance and Obama’s subsequent distancing from him was part of a quid pro quo designed to allow Obama to appear more moderate without explicitly denying his radical preacher. Had news of the meeting been reported, that question may have been explored, at least in the conservative blogosphere. Instead, the public was deprived of the context necessary to make a true judgment about Obama’s relationship to Wright. But perhaps a clue to Obama’s motivations in both speeches can be found in the words of Wright himself.
“Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls…He does what politicians do.”
Cross posted at Mark on the Right.