Here is his statement:
"The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago. His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate, and I believe that they do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church.
They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that that's political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, well, I might not know him as well as I thought, either.
Now, I've already denounced the comments that appeared in these previous sermons. As I said, I had not heard them before. I gave him the benefit of the doubt in my speech in Philadelphia, explaining that he has done enormous good in the church, he's built a wonderful congregation, the people of Trinity are wonderful people, and what attracted me has always been their ministry's reach beyond the church walls.
But when he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the US 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 United States' wartime efforts with terrorism, then there are no excuses. They offend me, they rightly offend all Americans, and they should be denounced. And that's what I'm doing very clearly and unequivocally today."
Here's the Q and A:
"In some ways, what Rev. Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything that I've done during my life. It contradicts how I was raised, and the setting in which I was raised; it contradicts my decisions to pursue a career of public service; it contradicts the issues that I've worked on politically; it contradicts what I've said in my books; I've; it contradicts what I said in my convention speech in 2004; it contradicts my announcement; it contradicts everything I've been saying on this campaign trail.
And what I tried to do in Philadelphia was to provide a context, and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America, of which Rev. Wright is a part and we're all a part, and try to make something constructive out of it. But there wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday. All it was was a bunch of rants that aren't grounded in truth. And I can't construct something positive out of that. I can understand it; people do all sorts of things. And as I said before, I continue to believe that Rev. Wright has been a leader in the South Side, I think that the church he built is outstanding, I think that he has preached in the past some wonderful sermons, he provided valuable contributions to my family, but at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it, in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough."
Watch the whole thing. If you can't watch it, and are wondering whether this is just some sort of pro forma statement, trust me on this: it isn't. He is outraged and angry, and (I think) genuinely saddened by what Rev. Wright said.
As for me...
Until yesterday, my views on Rev. Wright were essentially as follows:
First, some of what he said was indefensible. Some of the other soundbites were less so. In any case, the sermons in their entirety were better than the soundbites, and deserved a listen.
Second, it was also worth bearing in mind Rev. Wright's age, and the world in which he came of age, in considering his "anger".
Third, going to a church does not imply that you agree with the church's minister on politics. Politics is not the most important part of a church; religion is. And insofar as politics does matter, I would find a church's actual engagement with its community more important than its pastor's views about things like 9/11, which he had precisely no power to affect. Rev. Wright's church has, by all accounts, a really inspiring record of working in its community. As I said before:
"If I had wandered into Rev. Wright's church, or any church that made an active effort to bring together Christians from all backgrounds, and to minister to all of their needs, I would have joined it on the spot. I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven. Just about the last thought that would have crossed my mind would have been: but what about the pastor's political views? Do I agree with them all?"
More generally: one of the things I have particularly hated about this campaign season is the way in which candidates are judged by standards that make no sense as applied to actual human beings. Is it possible to understand how someone could fail to wear a flag pin and still love his country? Yes. Is it possible to understand how someone who has been campaigning on a very heavy schedule could say something dumb -- "Bomb Bomb Iran", for instance? Yes. (Which is why I have never made much of that. I worry a lot about McCain's actual foreign policy views, but the fact that he said this doesn't seem to me to mean much of anything.) On the present topic: is it possible to understand how someone could join a church that had as much going for it as Trinity did -- especially the outreach to the community -- without agreeing with its pastor on politics? Yes. And is it possible to understand why someone who had gotten a lot out of his church and his pastor could be unwilling to toss that pastor under the bus? Again, yes.
Just to expand on this a bit: one of the many, many reasons I will never go into politics is that I know that if someone decided to go through my various friends and acquaintances, they would find all sorts of things to cause trouble with. This does tell you something about me: I like people who disagree with me, and I am more than happy to be friends with people who hold views I utterly reject. I also believe strongly that while there are limits on the views people can hold and still be my friend -- I can't really imagine being friends with a Nazi, for instance -- those limits are pretty far out, and I should not try to narrow them. Personally, I like these things about me. But by the "OMG he was once on a board with William Ayers" standard, they mean that I fail in a heartbeat. That is, as I said, one of the many reasons I will never go into politics. It gives me a certain sympathy for people who do. And it makes me want to stick up for them when people try to insinuate that they are tarred by having known people whose views they plainly do not share. The "OMG he was once on a board with William Ayers" standard is not applicable to actual human beings, just to robots who arrange their entire lives, and all their acquaintances, around the possibility that one day they will run for President.
That's why, while I understood the calls for Obama to throw Wright under the bus, I was impressed that he didn't.
But that changed yesterday. I thought Wright's appearance before the National Press Club, and in particular the Q and A, was just appalling: narcissistic, destructive, and venomous. Part of it was the content: sticking up for Farrakhan, for instance. Part of it was the tone (and here I think watching the video makes a big difference: you can't tell how much he's enjoying being the center of attention from the transcript.) But part of it was that I thought it might as well have been calculated to bring Obama down. Whether it was calculated or not I don't know: there are people who can be spiteful in ways you'd think would require calculation without thinking much at all. They just have a knack for finding out the vulnerability to probe, the remark that will truly do damage, the space between the ribs where the knife can slide right in, and they can therefore do great harm without actual forethought or intention. Having known such people, I can't say whether or not Wright was trying to do damage. But damage he surely did. It might not have been intentional, but it surely wasn't accidental either.
I found it understandable -- Wright has, after all, been the object of a lot of pretty ferocious attacks -- but also pretty ugly.
Noam Scheiber has the obvious next question:
"The other lingering question is whether people will wonder all over again how Obama could have been friends with this guy for 20 years. It's a legitimate concern, but if it didn't weigh him down too much after the Phildelphia speech in March, I wouldn't expect it to do him in this time. Wright's "performance" yesterday struck me as new and brazen enough to warrant a different reaction than Obama would have had in the past."
As I've already said, I think people ought to be allowed to be friends with all sorts of people. If we make politicians responsible for the views of everyone they've ever known, we might as well just stipulate that we will only ever elect people who have been monitoring their lives since birth for any sign of political controversy, and who have neither any tolerance for disagreement nor intellectual curiosity. I also agree with Katherine, in comments, that Obama is being held to a racial double standard here. I think that to the extent that people are uncomfortable with blacks, it's easier to paint them as somehow scary and insufficiently American, and to take all sorts of things that pass without comment when whites do them as signs that they are "not really one of us."
That said, Obama isnt the only one surprised by Wright's press conference yesterday. Scheiber again:
"For what it's worth, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall, who lived in Chicago for years and heard Wright preach at Trinity several times, said she was shocked by Wright's National Press Club performance yesterday, too. She says she suspects that lots of her and Obama's fellow parishioners had the same reaction. It'll be interesting to see if other Trinity members come forward with similar responses--and, in general, whether the church membership sides with Obama or Wright in this back-and-forth."
It will indeed. In the meantime, here's a piece of pure, unadulterated psychological speculation. I have no support for it whatever, other than instinct, so treat it accordingly.
I have known people who have befriended me at a time when I was in some way their inferior: new, or young, or inexperienced, or junior in rank; and who have been immensely generous to me. They have taken me under their wing, offered to show me the ropes, and tried to mentor me. In many cases there was something about it that I might have found slightly condescending had I been so inclined. But I'm not, usually: generosity is generosity, and luckily, I don't have much of an ego. When I have encountered such people, I have tended to think: these are good people, who for whatever reason have to deal with other people in this peculiar way. Since they are good people, I would be foolish to turn them away, as though there were so many good and generous people around that I could afford to be picky; and since I myself no doubt have all sorts of peculiarities of which I am unaware, I'm probably not in any position to get all huffy about theirs.
Sometimes, however, these relationships did not survive the point at which I left the subordinate position in which I began. It was all very well when I was that person's acolyte, or pupil, or whatever; but when I turned into an equal, even if I did so involuntarily (e.g., by getting some kind of recognition), things went all weird. I hated that: in most cases, I felt that I owed the people in question a lot, and did not want to lose their friendship. But sometimes I did. And sometimes it was vicious.
I wonder whether something like this isn't going on now. When Rev. Wright first met Obama, he was a young community organizer, and Rev. Wright was the pastor of a large and thriving church. Obama would have been the one who needed advice and a community; Rev. Wright would have been the one who could take him under his wing and help him out. He might, for all I know, have been the soul of generosity. Moreover, Wright could have gone on thinking of Obama as his subordinate for quite a while. After all, they would have met mostly in the context of Wright's church, where he was the acknowledged leader. I can easily imagine Wright thinking something like: he's a United States Senator, but here in church, he's still my parishioner. In that case, the superior/subordinate dynamic could have persisted, and even been enhanced by Obama's success elsewhere.
But if their relationship was of this kind, it would not have survived Obama's disowning Wright's remarks in Philadelphia. There is no way that it could have. That kind of relationship requires that one person see himself as the guide, the teacher, the one who generously shares his wisdom and counsel with the other. It never survives the other person's explicitly repudiating that counsel.
As I said above: in my experience, these kinds of relationships often do not end well. It's awful to get some sort of recognition and then discover that a relationship you care about has always been predicated on your obscurity, even though you didn't know about it. (The opposite -- when you're friends with someone and it turns out that their friendship for you is predicated on your being in a position to do something for them -- must be even worse; at least in the cases I'm describing, the person in question has a kind of real, if warped, generosity, rather than being simply mercenary.) I suspect it's also awful for the other person; I know, as I said, that the end is often bitter and vicious.
I have a hunch that something like that is at work here. As I said, it's just a hunch, supported by no evidence whatsoever. But it makes more sense of the destructiveness of Wright's appearance before the National Press Club than anything else I've thought of. It would also explain why what Wright did there surprised both Obama and others.