The much discussed, much defended, and much reviled pastor Jeremiah Wright can't be blamed for his gross naiveté on politics. After all, he's a preacher, and as he told Bill Moyers in an interview on PBS that he only talks "about the things of God." That's the way it should be for men of the faith. But that's not the way it is when one of your flock is a politician who's at the top of the heap in the dash for the White House.
It doesn't do much good as countless Wright defenders have shouted that he is being held to the old racial double standard when much of the media and the public dump on him and call him a racist, hatemonger, and anti-American for his racially inflammatory remarks, but do not pound on white preachers who rail against abortion, gay marriage, and make borderline gender and racially offensive statements. The issue in that case is not the color of the preacher or the notoriety of the member of the flock that hears the preacher's message; it's the timing of the message.
Whether Wright's statements were taken out of context, deliberately mangled and twisted, and packaged to make him look bad is irrelevant. In fact, his remarks weren't even blown up necessarily to make Obama look like a closet radical and racial panderer. Wright's words in context or not were sensational, shocking, and made in heaven news soundbits. Since Obama is a member of his church flock that made them ripe for a political spin.
But Wright should have known that. He's no babe in the wood when it comes to controversy. Sooner or later his words would be fodder for a You Tube loop and for a media whose antenna is sky high for even the slightest bit of campaign titillation. There were just too many hints of that. The early rap of his Southside Chicago church, his fiery preaching style, and his outspoken afro-centric activism on racial and social issues, were plums for the news and political pickings. Early on in the Obama campaign Wright purportedly warned him that his church membership might eventually be made an issue. He even wrote a letter to a New York Times writer lambasting her for allegedly doing a hatchet job on the church and his preachments a year before the storm broke.
His oblique dig at Obama in the Moyers interview for as he put it doing what politicians do showed he knew something about the penchant of politicians to do and say anything to win. Presumably what Wright meant in Obama's case, was that he had to do racial damage control and distance himself from his views.
Wright also learned that in politics timing is everything. The quotes that he screams were skewed and taken out of context are from older sermons and talks. There was no need to make an issue of them then because Obama was still an unknown on the national scene. Even after he tossed his hat in the presidential rink in February, 2007 it still took many months of debates, hard campaigning, and then spectacular wins in a slew of Democratic primaries and caucuses before Democratic Party top guns, much of the media, and public and that included the majority of blacks, not to mention the GOP watchdogs, really believed that he had a real shot at the presidency. There was simply no need to fasten Wright as a political albatross around Obama's neck at that point.
Wright also relearned another lesson about race and politics. It's still a touchy, volatile, and always polarizing issue that politicians step gingerly around whenever they can. That's especially true for Obama. Though he's done everything humanly possible to sell himself and his candidacy as the incarnation of inclusiveness, race neutrality, and unity, there are still the whispers and worries that a racial intent lurks just under the surface in his agenda.
For the Obama doubters and those downright suspicious of him, Wright confirmed their suspicions. There is no hard evidence that Wright did much to contribute to Obama's Pennsylvania primary loss. But the gaping racial rift between white Democrats and black Democrats in the vote there on Clinton and Obama is an inferential sign that Wright may have been on the minds of more than a few white voters.
There's no inference or guesswork that he's on the minds of North Carolina state GOP leaders. Their hit ad that welded Obama at the hip with Wright was splattered all over the state. Though John McCain quickly denounced it and demanded that it be yanked, party leaders there essentially told their man to take a hike.
Wright has retired from the pulpit at Trinity United. However, his alleged out of context and distorted remarks won't be retired. They're too much of a political goldmine and that's something that Wright got a fresh education on.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).