Obama Responds to Former Pastor

Barack Obama made an impassioned break from his former pastor in a speech Tuesday in North Carolina. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright had made several public appearances over the past few days, none of which pleased the Obama campaign.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This afternoon, Barack Obama responded to the recent remarks of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In an extraordinary appearance before reporters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination said he was outraged and appalled by what his former pastor had said in appearances over the past several days.

Obama has described Reverend Wright as the man who strengthened his faith, married him, and baptized his children. But after seeing what Wright said yesterday, he said his view of the man is changed.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): 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.

SIEGEL: Reverend Wright spoke yesterday at the National Press Club in Washington. Over the weekend, he addressed the black clergy and he gave an interview to Bill Moyers on PBS. In that appearance, when asked about Obama's previous rejection of his remarks, Wright said, he's a politician and he said what he had to say, and I'm a pastor, and I say what I have to say.

Well, today, Obama emphasized that what he says about Jeremiah Wright is what he believes.

Sen. OBAMA: 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 may not know him as well as I thought either.

SIEGEL: And Senator Obama cited specific remarks of Reverend Wright's that he rejects.

Sen. OBAMA: When he states and then amplifies such ridiculous propositions as the U.S. 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.

SIEGEL: And that, Obama said, is what he was doing very clearly and unequivocally in his words today.

Well, NPR's Don Gonyea has been covering the Obama campaign, and he joins us from North Carolina. And Don, obviously, the Jeremiah Wright story must have been hurting Obama.

DON GONYEA: Absolutely. And the big problem with it is that it distracted from what Senator Obama wanted to be talking about in these crucial days, really this crucial final week now before the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, which are next Tuesday.

We've been talking about how he has retooled his stump speech to really focus more on nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts economic issues - you know, gas prices, the mortgage crisis, jobs. And here we are a day and a half, and all of the headlines are about Jeremiah Wright, and that really frustrates and has angered the campaign.

SIEGEL: How did Senator Obama handle, well, the obvious question about these remarks that these are things that Jeremiah Wright said months, if not, years ago, what's different now?

GONYEA: He says that those tapes that emerged, you know, months back, he felt that they didn't represent a man that he knew. He felt that they caricatured Reverend Wright and did not give him any credit for all the good that he has done, you know, in the south side of Chicago.

Today, he was talking about how Reverend Wright, in his talks with the National Press Club yesterday and in the interview with Bill Moyers, had become kind of a caricature of himself. And the thing that seemed to anger him most is that he said Reverend Wright understands what this election is about. Reverend Wright has to understand the issues that he, as a candidate - Barack Obama as a candidate - is talking about and that the American people want to focus on. And that it is unfortunate, it is outrageous - he used the word outrageous or some form of it three times in his remarks today - that he would take the attention off of those things and put it squarely at himself like this.

SIEGEL: Okay, thank you, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Don Gonyea covering the Obama campaign in North Carolina.

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Transcript: Obama's Speech on Rev. Wright

The following is a transcript of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's remarks about his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. This speech was delivered in Hickory, N.C., on Tuesday, April 29, one day after Wright appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to address accusations that he had made inflammatory remarks about the United States. The transcript was provided by the Federal News Service.

Before I start taking questions I want to open it up with a couple of comments about what we saw and heard yesterday. I have spent my entire adult life trying to bridge the gap between different kinds of people. That's in my DNA, trying to promote mutual understanding to insist that we all share common hopes and common dreams as Americans and as human beings. That's who I am. That's what I believe. That's what this campaign has been about.

Yesterday, we saw a very different vision of America. I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday.

You know, I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I have known Rev. Wright for almost 20 years. 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 Rev. 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 may not know him as well as I thought, either.

Now, I've already denounced the comments that had appeared in these previous sermons. As I said, I had not heard them before. And 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 U.S. 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 here today.

Let me just close by saying this: I — we started this campaign with the idea that the problems that we face as a country are too great to continue to be divided, that, in fact, all across America people are hungry to get out of the old divisive politics of the past.

I have spoken and written about the need for us to all recognize each other as Americans, regardless of race or religion or region of the country; that the only way we can deal with critical issues, like energy and health care and education and the war on terrorism, is if we are joined together. And the reason our campaign has been so successful is because we had moved beyond these old arguments.

What we saw yesterday out of Rev. Wright was a resurfacing and, I believe, an exploitation of those old divisions. Whatever his intentions, that was the result. It is antithetical to our campaign. It is antithetical to what I am about. It is not what I think American stands for.

And I want to be very clear that moving forward, Rev. Wright does not speak for me. He does not speak for our campaign. I cannot prevent him from continuing to make these outrageous remarks. But what I do want him to be very clear about, as well as all of you and the American people, is that when I say I find these comments appalling. I mean it. It contradicts everything that I'm about and who I am.

And anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who has read my books, who has seen what this campaign's about, I think, will understand that it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country.

Last point: I'm particularly distressed that this has caused such a distraction from what this campaign should be about, which is the American people. Their situation is getting worse. And this campaign has never been about me. It's never been about Sen. Clinton or John McCain. It's not about Rev. Wright.

People want some help in stabilizing their lives and securing a better future for themselves and their children, and that's what we should be talking about. And the fact that Rev. Wright would think that somehow it was appropriate to command the stage, for three or four consecutive days, in the midst of this major debate, is something that not only makes me angry but also saddens me.

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