Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Obama's Minister Problem

By LANNY J. DAVIS
April 9, 2008; Page A15

I have tried to get over my unease surrounding Barack Obama's response to the sermons and writings of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But the unanswered questions remain.

I am a strong supporter of and a substantial fundraiser for Hillary Clinton for president (though in this column I speak only for myself). I still believe she should and will be the Democratic nominee. But if Sen. Obama wins the nomination, he needs to understand that this issue goes well beyond Clinton partisans. Now is the time to address these questions, not late

Clearly Mr. Obama does not share the extremist views of Rev. Wright. He is a tolerant and honorable person. But that is not the issue. The questions remain: Why did he stay a member of the congregation? Why didn't he speak up earlier? And why did he reward Rev. Wright with a campaign position even after knowing of his comments?

My concerns were retriggered when I read for the first time three excerpts from Rev. Wright's sermons published several weeks ago in a national news magazine:

- "We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." -- Sept. 16, 2001 (the first Sunday after 9/11)

- "The government . . . wants us to sing God Bless America. No, no, no. God damn America; that's in the bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human."-- 2003

- "The United States of White America." -- July 22, 2007

As I read and reread these words, I keep thinking: If my rabbi ever uttered such hateful words from the pulpit about America and declared all Palestinians to be terrorists, I have no doubt I would have withdrawn immediately from his congregation.

In his eloquent Philadelphia speech, Mr. Obama likened Rev. Wright to a beloved, but politically extremist, family member with whom one profoundly disagrees but whose rage one understands.

But this comparison just doesn't work for me. I don't get a chance to choose my family members. I do get a chance to choose my spiritual or religious leader and my congregation. And I do not have to remain silent or, more importantly, expose my children to the spiritual leader of my congregation who spews hate that offends my conscience.

Mr. Obama made a choice to join the church and to ask Rev. Wright to marry him and his bride. He said for the first time a few weeks ago that had Rev. Wright not recently resigned as pastor of the church, he would have withdrawn. But that only reraised the same questions: Why didn't he act before the resignation?

If he did not want to withdraw from the church – and I truly try to understand his personal difficulty doing so – then why not at least speak out publicly and say, in the famous phrase of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: "No – this is unacceptable."

Furthermore, after knowing about some of these sermons and having serious problems with some of their messages, why did Mr. Obama still decide to appoint Rev. Wright to his official presidential campaign religious advisory committee?

Some have suggested that any Clinton supporters who continue to raise this issue are "playing the race card" or taking the "low" road.

When I said on CNN recently that concerns about the Wright-Obama issue were "appropriate" to continue to be discussed, my friend Joe Klein of Time Magazine said, "Lanny, Lanny, you're spreading the poison right now" and that an "honorable person" would "stay away from this stuff."

Attacking the motives of those who feel this discomfort about Senator Obama's response or nonresponse to Reverend Wright's comments is not just unfair and wrong. It also misses the important electoral point about winning the general election in November: This issue is not going away. If many loyal, progressive Democrats remain troubled by this issue, then there must be even more unease among key swing voters – soft "Reagan Democrats," independents and moderate Republicans – who will decide the 2008 election.

One thing is for sure: If Mr. Obama doesn't show a willingness to try to answer all the questions now, John McCain and the Republican attack machine will not waste a minute pressuring him to do so if he is the Democratic Party's choice in the fall.

But by then, it may be too late.

Mr. Davis, a Washington, D.C. attorney, is former special counsel to President Clinton.

Wall Street Journal | Lanny Davis | April 9, 2008 09:21 AM

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