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Barack Obama Breaks With Ex-Pastor, Rev. Wright

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Barack Obama Breaks With Ex-Pastor, Rev. Wright

Election 2008

Barack Obama Breaks With Ex-Pastor, Rev. Wright

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

Barack Obama strongly denounces his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. The Supreme Court backs an Indiana law requiring voters to show a picture ID at their polling place. And Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain find themselves on the same side of a proposal that would give drivers a break from paying gas taxes. For more on this week's news, we have Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Also with us, Robert Traynham, D.C. bureau chief for the Comcast Cable Network, CN8. Welcome, folks.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you, Farai. Hello.

Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (D.C. Bureau Chief, CN8): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So Reverend Wright put himself in the spotlight. He gave two speeches and one interview in the course of four days. And then yesterday, Barack Obama gave a speech denouncing Reverend Wright. Let's take a listen.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I have known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.

CHIDEYA: In a way, it sounds like a divorce. Mary, is this the end of Obama and Wright's two-decade relationship?

Dr. BERRY: Well, it appears to be the end, unless and until he gets to be president. That is Obama, not Wright, in any case. And I think he really did divorce him. I mean, it's over. It's not a separation. And he was emphatic about it. There are still questions left like, what did he know and when did he know it? And when did Obama find out that the guy made sermons like that? All that stuff is left. But I think for the supporters of Obama, he made a clean break with Reverend Wright, and that should no longer be an issue for them.

CHIDEYA: Robert, if it was the right decision, at least in terms of presidential politics, why did it take so long?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I think for two reasons, Farai. First and foremost, you know, yes, it was a divorce, but it was also a funeral. Because if you take a look at Senator Obama's posture, you can tell that he was really struggling for words and really trying to put this into some type of context from an emotional standpoint. And the reason being is because apparently they had a relationship for 20 years.

And remember, you know, this was his spiritual adviser. This is someone that married him. This is someone that baptized his children and presumably walked him through the spiritual aspects of his life. And so for someone to come out in such a personal way to, quote, unquote, "mock" and disrespect Senator Obama, you know, it was pretty hard for him.

But to answer your question specifically, Farai. You know, Senator Obama, it took him a long time because I think he was really trying to search for the right answers to this, and for all the reasons that I just spoke about. This is a very painful situation when your, quote, unquote "spiritual adviser" does what he did in such a public way. You know, it wasn't - everyone has the right to defend themselves. And obviously, Reverend Wright had the right to do that. But to do it in a mocking way, to do it literally all around the country, starting in Detroit and then going to Washington D.C. And doing it in such a -almost a spectacle, it was a circus - I think Senator Obama clearly had to come out and say what he had to say.

Dr. BERRY: Farai, I think that Reverend Wright believed that he had been disrespected, whether we agree with that or not. That he had been disrespected by his 20-year-long parishioner who distanced himself from him in public. And he has a large ego, Reverend Wright does, and is well known in the religious community as being a powerful theologian and thinks that he has his own reputation to defend. And feeling disrespected by his long-term parishioner, I think he decided that he would diss him.

That was not a wise political decision, and I don't think he's political at all. And I'm not sure he knows anything about PR, I would say that, based on watching him. But I think that that was what was going on there. And so then Obama had to turn around and diss him, as we say. That is, shove him aside. And that's what he did.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, Farai, just not to belabor this point, but as I think Mary just buttressed my point. I mean, this is a very complicated relationship, there's no question about it. Both from a generational standpoint, but also on a black, quote, unquote, "black-on-black" perspective. And clearly, Reverend Wright was beating to his own tune. And Senator Obama clearly had to beat to his own tune.

CHIDEYA: Do you think, Mary, that the white swing voters that are going to be so critical in the upcoming two contests in North Carolina and Indiana are going to look at this and say, oh, finally, this is great, we're glad? Or is not going to change the equation?

Dr. BERRY: Well, I don't know, obviously. But the news clips that I looked at today and on the Internet, the responses, people said things like, what did he know and when did he know it? And did he know about these sermons before the - even when he announced, because that's a reason why he didn't want Reverend Wright in public outside when he announced in Springsville. They're asking questions like that. And why is he - he's doing it now because he has to. We'll have to see how many people are persuaded.

The Obama supporters are OK. But the question is, as you put it, how many of the swing voters will say, whatever the history is, whatever happened before now, he has clearly laid this aside? It is, though - it depends on what Reverend Wright does, too. We don't know whether Reverend Wright will now fire back and say something. Or we don't know if a bunch of black pastors will come out and defend Reverend Wright. So it just depends on what happens. If there's silence in the next few days on this subject, perhaps some of those voters will accept what he said.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Farai, Senator...

CHIDEYA: Well...

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I'm sorry.

CHIDEYA: Please, go ahead briefly, and then I want to move on to the gas tax.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Senator Obama has a problem. He has a problem with white, middle-class voters. We saw that in Ohio. We certainly saw that in Pennsylvania. So going into North Carolina and Indiana, he recognizes that this is the last thing that he needs right now. And that's the main reason that he came out so swiftly to denounce Reverend Wright's comments.

CHIDEYA: I want to ask you, Robert, about this idea of a gas tax holiday. The presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, wants to eliminate the federal gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That means that if you go and fill up your tank, you would get a cut of 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline sold and 24 cents on diesel sold. So give me a quick run-through of how the candidates pan out on this, the presidential candidates.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, ironically, Senator Clinton has a very similar plan to Senator McCain. Senator Obama does not support this plan. And the reason why is because the federal gas tax directly funds highway as well as bridges construction and also maintaining those roads. Senator Obama specifically says that if - first of all, it's not going to do a lot of good, simply because you only save about three or four dollars when you fill up your tank from a tax perspective.

But also, too, those are badly needed funds to maintain our roads. He also says - Senator Obama also says that it actually could raise gas prices in terms of supply and demand. Senator McCain and Clinton vehemently deny that. So there really is an issue between whether or not this 20 cents of 24 cents or whatever the number really is, really does that save any money in the long run?

Dr. BERRY: Farai, I think that it is short-sighted to oppose the gas tax holiday in a political sense. In practical terms, and whatever the economics are, for people like me who can afford to buy gas and people who can afford to buy whatever amount of gas they need, and even hope that there will be a long-term solution to this overuse of gas problem, it's OK. But for people who are working-class types, some of those very voters in Indiana and North Carolina and places who for three or four dollars is a lot of money to them, and who worry, and who want a short-term solution, and who this summer had plans to go someplace, the truck drivers who are upset about it, all these people.

It's one of those cases where, if you're part of an elite and you can afford to do things, you think that it's minimal to do something for people who are poor. But for people who are struggling to buy bread or to buy groceries, with prices up on everything else, they may think it's not that we don't want in the long run to do something that makes sense, but in the short term, even if we can get a few pennies or a few dollars off. So I may turn out to be wrong about that, but I would think that the consensus among working-class types who are not well off would be that they would appreciate anything anybody could do them for them in the short term.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: And, Farai, you know, that's a very interesting point because, if you take a look at the demographics of where Senator Clinton needs to go, she needs to go with more white middle to lower middle class individuals. And that's the same constituency that Barack Obama needs to go after. And it's ironic that Barack Obama is often called now in the press, elitist and out of touch and aloof. So you would think that to kind of counterbalance that, he would actually go after these very voters with some type of a gas tax plan, as Mary had mentioned, for those folks that are living, literally, from paycheck to paycheck.

CHIDEYA: We have a short window left to talk about one final issue, and that's voter ID. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the Indiana law that requires voters to show government-issued photo ID at the polls. Now, Robert, why did the court uphold this law and are other states following suit?

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Other Republican states, where there's a legislature in control of the Republicans, will probably follow suit. And the reason why is because that clearly benefits Republican candidates around the country. The reason why the Supreme Court did this is because they uphold a lower case law. And they also said in a reasonable case, look, you go to a bank when you cash a check. You have to show government-issued ID. They really wanted to tamp down, or at least try to tamp down, on government fraud, or at least voter fraud, as it relates to people that have dead for five or ten years voting, people that may have lived in multiple states voting. That's not widespread, but in certain parts of the country it is a problem. And the Supreme Court wanted to address that issue.

Dr. BERRY: Farai, the Election Assistance Commission and the DOJ civil rights division, even under this administration, have said that there have not been any major fraud causes, that this is just something that people talk about and put out there. But they say there haven't been any so I accept that. The other reason, the other thing that's happening with the court - the court decided this technically because they said there is no denial of equal protection and states' rights permit this. The practical reason why they did it is because they are Reagan-Bush judges who are in the majority. We've got Roberts, Alito, all those people in the majority on the court who feel this way and they got, you know, Stevens to go with them and that's why the decision came out the way it did. And again...

CHIDEYA: This is actually going to hurt some voters.

Dr. BERRY: Yes, it will hurt poor people. It will hurt disabled people. Here's how it hurts them. If they don't have government-issued ID and they have to sign a provisional ballot when they go to vote, they have to go to the courthouse, which in some cases is far away. This was from an Indiana case. Far away from where they leave in order to verify their identity before their votes can be cast. Many of them don't have transportation. It's a long way to go. What it is really will suppress. It's one of those things that sounds logical and rational and like anybody can do it and why not. But it's one of those things that suppresses the poor and those who can least afford to pay.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: Farai, I know we're out of time...

CHIDEYA: We are out of time.

Mr. TRAYNHAM: I know we're out of time. Six to three with the Supreme Court decision, just to be fair.

CHIDEYA: OK. All right. Mary, Robert, thanks so much.

Dr. BERRY: Stevens.

CHIDEYA: All right, guys. Mary Frances Berry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, also the former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. And Robert Traynham is the D.C. Bureau Chief for the Comcast cable network CN8. They both joined us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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