Obama Seeks to Put Wright Behind Him

On the trail in Indiana, Sen. Barack Obama seeks to get his campaign message back on track. He has been mired in the controversy over remarks by his outspoken former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Today, Barack Obama worked to get back on message. For nearly a week, he's been dealing with controversy after his former pastor broke his silence. Yesterday, Obama denounced Reverend Jeremiah Wright. He called his most recent comments divisive and destructive. Today in Indiana, he tried to put the focus on working families.

NPR's Don Gonyea is traveling with the Obama campaign. He joins from the campaign bus outside Indianapolis.

And Don, how successful was Barack Obama today in trying to change the subject?

DON GONYEA: Ah, well, he held an event at an outdoor park here just outside Indianapolis. It was a small group, about 40 people. And I'll tell you, it was a little over an hour, the whole event. It took about 19 minutes before the subject of Reverend Wright came up, and it was raised by one of those working families that he was talking to about economic issues. And, Melissa, the questioner seemed sympathetic. He asked Obama what it was like to be forced to turn his back on someone who's been good to him. Senator Obama said again that Reverend Wright's comments were outrageous, that they were unacceptable. He then went on to say this.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): I've made a statement yesterday that was hard to make, but it was what I believe. And you know, what we want to do now, though, is to make sure that this doesn't continue to be a perpetual distraction.

BLOCK: Now, Don, Barack Obama's wife, Michelle, was also campaigning with her husband today, and Reverend Wright is, after all, the man who married the couple. This is very personal for both of them. What did she have to say about all this?

GONYEA: Well, it's funny. She was seated next to her husband; they were on a picnic table near the gazebo. He asked if she wanted to weigh in on that question after he made his comments. She declined. She kind of laughed. But then, the very next questioner brought up the issue of children, and Michelle Obama did take that question. And in a response to that question, she didn't specifically mention the Wright controversy, but it was clear what she was talking about - give a listen.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA (Senator Barack Obama's Wife): I just tell people don't judge Barack by anything other than what he does and says. Just measure it by the choices he's made in his life and the values that he holds dear. Because if anybody looks over the course of this year, you won't have a question about who Barack is.

BLOCK: Now, Don, I understand there are other ways that Barack Obama is on the defensive here, beyond the Jeremiah Wright issue.

GONYEA: That's right. How about gasoline taxes? He's being attacked over that issue. Hillary Clinton and John McCain both want to suspend the 18.4 percent federal tax on gasoline for the summer driving period. I'm sorry 18, 18 cents, 18 cents.

BLOCK: Yes.

GONYEA: She has an ad to that end. And she says, if - it's help that the American people need and that Senator Obama says no. He addressed it today at length. He said it's a gimmick. He said it would save the average person just a few dollars a week at best. That it would mean less money for highway upkeep and maintenance, and that could cost highway construction jobs. And he said there's no guarantee that - because of supply and demand, or whatever - that the oil prices wouldn't just raise the price up anyway, kind of eating up whatever savings would be proposed.

It's a complicated argument that he makes because he's a, you know, against the tax cut, but he's making it.

BLOCK: We mentioned at the beginning, Don, that Barack Obama is trying to speak to working families in Indiana. Besides the gas tax, what else was he talking about today?

GONYEA: He is talking about jobs. He is talking about finding tax relief for working class families and rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts on wealthier Americans. He is making a bet that that is the kind of thing that voters here in Indiana want to talk about. He knows that these attacks - the Wright controversy, the other things - these issues aren't helping him.

But you can also see him trying to highlight those attacks as exactly the kind of thing that is wrong with politics in America today. And that notion has been a major theme of his campaign right from the beginning. So he's trying to turn these controversies into a kind of a tried and true campaign theme of his that has worked earlier in the campaign.

BLOCK: Okay, Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Don Gonyea in Indiana with the Obama campaign.

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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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