Assessing Political Fallout of Rev. Wright's Defense

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Rev. Jeremiah Wright's media blitz may shape public opinion, but will it reconfigure the presidential race, as well? For more, Farai Chideya speaks with Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor.


From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. We just heard how Reverend Jeremiah Wright's media blitz may shape public opinion, but will it reconfigure the presidential race as well? For more we have NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hey, good to be with you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So during an interview with Fox News this weekend, Barack Obama said it's legitimate to raise questions about his relationship with Reverend Wright and John McCain now says the Reverend Wright issue is fair game in the general election. So do you think the Republican Party is planning on capitalizing on this? And if so, how?

ELVING: I think they've already begun. They are, for example, having a controversy over whether or not to run an ad highlighting some of the most incendiary remarks by the Reverend Wright. And that ad would run in North Carolina, which is having its primary a week from tomorrow, and it would be sponsored by the North Carolina Republican Party. Now they said they were going to start running the ad, don't know if they've actually put it up on the air anywhere. A couple of stations have refused to run it. And it tries to conflate Barack Obama and his campaign with some of things that Jeremiah Wright said back in 2002, 2003, right after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. And John McCain has denounced the ad. But on the other hand, people keep asking John McCain questions about the ad so he gets to keep saying, I don't think this is proper use of the advertising airwaves. On the other hand, I do think Jeremiah Wright is fair game.

CHIDEYA: Right. Now, Reverend Wright has said there's a difference between being a politician and being a pastor.

Reverend JEREMIAH WRIGHT (Trinity United Church of Christ): Several of my white friends and several of my white Jewish friends have written me and said to me, they said, you're a Christian, you understand forgiveness. We both know that if Senator Obama did not say what he said he would never get elected. Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on soundbites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever is doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they are pastors.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that that kind of message of, I'm just speaking plainly because I'm a man of God, is that going to resonate with voters and/or critics?

ELVING: It will resonate with some voters, I believe. There are a great number of people who hunger to hear politicians speak more frankly. There are a great number of people who may hunger to hear their pastor speak more frankly, but not all pastors share the same definition of what their responsibilities and obligations may be. Many pastors do feel a tremendous amount of restraint or constraint on the basis of not wanting to offend anyone in their congregation. So it's a somewhat different definition as the reverend has often times said himself. His particular religious tradition is not necessarily everyone's. It's different. Not deficient, but different.

CHIDEYA: Senator Obama has had to walk a fine line between distancing himself from the reverend and not rejecting him. How effective has that tightrope-walk been?

ELVING: I think it was pretty effective back in March when he gave his famous, well-regarded speech in response to the first airing of the Wright videotapes. That was a good speech in the sense that it managed to allow people a way to talk about it, think about it, relate to it and move on. That was before Reverend Wright decided that he wanted to have a more direct input into the conversation about him and about his impact on this race. Now that we are seeing him more or less everywhere at once and for however long that may go on. Don't anticipate it becoming exactly a daily program. But as long as it goes on, he forces the terms on his terms. He gets us all talking about him more the way he wants us to talk about him, much more defiant approach as opposed to the more conciliatory language that Barack Obama would prefer to use.

CHIDEYA: Are there any analogs in other campaigns? I mean some people have talked about Bill Clinton being the surrogate that just wouldn't shut up when it comes to Senator Clinton's campaign. Are there analogs, do you think, in the Clinton or McCain campaigns to what Reverend Wright is to Obama?

ELVING: It's interesting to note that there have been unpolitic or impolitic things said by people who are in some respect or another associated with some of the other candidates. John McCain, for example, has Reverend John Hagee, a Texas televangelist who has endorsed him with John McCain asking for his endorsement and accepting his endorsement, and also told the world that he believes Hurricane Katrina happened to New Orleans because of homosexuality in that city. That is a remark that John McCain himself does not want to be associated with and has denounced. And when asked about it, John McCain says it's nonsense. In fact, he said it's nonsense about 20 times in one quotation when he was asked about it. And yet he has not entirely denounced or distanced himself from that particular televangelist. He wanted some support from that part of the world and he got some through this particular minister, and it's had some blowback on him. We'll see with respect to some other candidates, but I don't think it's going to have anything like the same impact that Reverend Wright is having because partly of the video tapes and then partly because of the defiance and his own attitude.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ron, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, and he joined us from our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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