On Friday night, Senator Barack Obama appeared on all three cable networks — yes, even Fox! — to address the controversy which flared up on Thursday/Friday of last week regarding controversial comments made by his long-term pastor, mentor and spiritual advisor, Pastor Jeremiah Wright. He also published a blog post here on HuffPo which was picked up by the networks, which provided a blueprint for his statements and for which his interviews were a follow-up. The major points of emphasis were as follows: (1) He was not aware or fully aware of the comments; (2) Pastor Wright has been a long-term figure in his life with whom he does not always agree, like most people might view the officiant at their place of worship; (3) Pastor Wright was a marine, served the country, and has a rich intellectual tradition and a strong record of good works and spearheading social change; (4) Pastor Wright was stepping down from the church, and was stepping down from his role on Obama's religious steering committee; and (5) He repudiates all the controversial comments raised and distance himself from the statements, but would not and did not repudiate the man himself.
It was a smart move on Obama's part — get out, address, diffuse, distance — though of course the rumblings about Wright's rhetoric and church have been sounding for a while now (see here.) A few takeaways from each interview, the video clips of which are provided below:
(1) Did Obama ask Wright to step down from his campaign, or did Wright do so voluntarily? He didn't say:
OLBERMANN: Your campaign saying this afternoon, it had no plans to ask Reverend Wright to step down. Obviously, that has changed. Did he step down tonight or did you ask him to leave?
OBAMA: You know, I think, there was a recognition that he's on the verge of retirement, he's taking a sabbatical and it was important for him to step out of the spotlight in this situation.
Olbermann did not press him on that point; neither of the other two interviewers asked about that. (Olbermann also did not press Obama on repudiating the statements vs. the man — when Olbermann asked him about that, Obama said he repudiated the statements but not the man, and Olbermann did not follow up. Note that in his Special Comment earlier in the week, he had specifically said to Hillary Clinton that it was not enough to reject the comments of Geraldine Ferraro, she had to "reject and denounce" the person or else Ferraro was "speaking with your approval.")
(2) The big question of the Wright issue seems to be "what did Obama know and when did he know it?" Major Garrett tried to establish how regularly Obama would have been in church to have heard the statements:
GARRETT: As a member in good standing, were you a regular attendee of Sunday services?
OBAMA: You know, I won't say that I was a perfect attendee. I was regular in spurts, because there was times when, for example, our child had just been born, our first child. And so we didn't go as regularly then.
Garrett asked Obama if he would have quit the church if he'd heard the statements; Obama tried to put it in context of Wright's miliarty service and intellectual tradition, and said that the statements were cherry-piced from hundreds of sermons Wright had delivered, and said that in his experience they were not reflective of the tone and tenor of the church, and that had he heard such remarks "I don't think that it would have been reflective of my values or my faith experience." Garrett asked again if he would then have quit and Obama said yes. "But, frankly," he said, "That has not been my experience at Trinity United Church of Christ. "
Anderson Cooper also tried to establish whether Obama could have been familiar with this strain of Wright's rhetoric previously, noting that Obama had attested to listening to tapes of Wright while he was at law school (great catch by Cooper here, by the way). See below:
COOPER: But, I mean, uncles are blood relatives who you're kind of stuck with at family gatherings, even when they say outrageous things. You can't get rid of them. You can walk out of a church. You can walk go up to a pastor and say, this is wrong.
OBAMA: And, as I said, Anderson, if I had heard any of those statements, I probably would have walked up, and I probably would have told Reverend Wright that they were wrong. But they were not statements that I heard when I was in church.
COOPER: So, no one in the church ever said to you, man, last week, you missed this sermon; Reverend Wright said this; or...
COOPER: I mean, I think I read in your books that you listened to tapes of Reverend Wright when you were at Harvard Law School.
OBAMA: I did.
COOPER: So, you had no idea?
OBAMA: I understand. I did not. Well, I want to be clear that, when I ran for president, some of these statements started surfacing.
OBAMA: And, at that point, I was very concerned about it. I had conversations with Reverend Wright about it. And I put out statements indicating that these were not my beliefs. But, as I said before, he was on the verge of retirement. He's preached his last sermon. He will be no longer a pastor at the end of March 31. And, so, our belief was that the most appropriate way to handle it was to be very clear about my strong condemnation of the statements, but to continue to be a part of the church.
(3) One interesting thing which I noted: Obama rightly notes that Pastor Wright's sermons reflect his experience as an African American, which is different than his own, and notes that such an experience is part of what his candidacy is trying to grapple with and move beyond. On Olbermann:
He's an African-American man, who, because of his life experience continues to have a lot of anger and frustration, and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation, partly because I benefited from the struggles of that early generation. And so, part of what we're seeing here is a transition from the past to the future. And I hope that our politics represents the future.
...and on CNN:
And part of what I think I see is Reverend Wright as somebody who grew up in the '60s, had very different life experiences than I had, has continued to harbor a lot of anger and frustration about discrimination that he may have experienced. And, so, his life experiences have been very different than mine. And part of what is going on within the African-American community is a transition, in which some of the rhetoric and statements and -- and frustrations of the past have given way to opportunities that I have experienced, and -- which is part of the reason why I speak in very different terms. And that's part of what our campaign has been about, is to surface some of these issues and to be able to move forward and get beyond them.
Obama did not raise this point on Fox.
The videos are collected below; also included is a YouTube videos of some of Pastor Wright's comments, plus links to transcripts of each of the interviews.
Anderson Cooper on CNN:
Major Garrett on Fox:
Olbermann on MSNBC:
YouTube clip of Pastor Jeremiah Wright:
Related on HuffPost:
Raymond Roker: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?
Frank Schaeffer: Obama's Minister Committed "Treason" But When My Father Said the Same Thing He Was a Republican HeroLecia Shorter: Reverend Jeremiah Wright: Anti-American Or A Man Speaking Truth To Power
Earl Ofari Hutchinson: White Guilt Not the Problem with Obama Surge
Gerald Posner: Reverend Wright and Barack
Andy Borowitz: Obama Converts To Judaism*
*For the satire-challenged: Barack Obama did not, in fact, convert to Judaism.