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Barack Obama once said he could not disown his former pastor - but Obama's getting close. Obama is responding again to a minister whose excerpted sermons first drew wide attention last month. This week, the pastor reopened the debate by declaring that his critics were really attacking the black church.
Jeremiah Wright said the U.S. government is capable of anything, including spreading AIDS, and he even suggested that Obama did not mean it when he distanced himself from the pastor. NPR's Don Gonyea reports on Obama's effort to show he does mean it.
DON GONYEA: During his Monday speech, Reverend Wright was at turns defiant and dramatic, gleeful and provocative. In short, he was a major league headache for the Obama campaign. And all eyes were on the senator to see how he would react.
Back in mid-March, when those video excerpts of Wright turned up, Obama responded with his much-praised speech on race in America. In that speech he condemned what Wright said but not the man himself.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.
GONYEA: But with Wright's new comments this week repeating and expanding on earlier controversial statements, Obama was forced to speak out again. His first reaction came late Monday afternoon. He said that Reverend Wright did not speak for the campaign. He again condemned Wright's words, but it was not a forceful rejection of Wright.
Yesterday Obama felt compelled to say more, and say it more strongly. He spoke to reporters following a town hall meeting in Winston-Salem.
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.
GONYEA: Obama said he felt anger and outrage when he heard Wright's latest remarks. He said such statements offend him, offend all Americans, and should be denounced.
Sen. OBAMA: 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.
GONYEA: Further, Obama said he was disappointed that Wright criticized the Obama decision to distance himself from his former pastor last month. Wright said it was just playing politics. Here's Obama.
Sen. OBAMA: I want to use this press conference to make people absolutely clear that obviously whatever relationship I had with Reverend Wright has changed as a consequence of this. I don't think that he showed much concern for me.
GONYEA: Later in the day Obama was onstage at another town hall meeting - this one in Hickory, North Carolina. He was nearing the end of the hour-long event in which he had made just a fleeting reference to this latest controversy. Obama spoke of how his opponents take him on by avoiding real issues.
Sen. OBAMA: So they're talking about - they're talking about who is he and do we know his values and he's not wearing a flag pin right now and, you know, his former pastor said some crazy stuff.
GONYEA: He then described his approach to his campaign and his entire career as being devoted to an attitude exactly opposite to the divisiveness employed by Reverend Wright. The audience applauded. Fifty-three-year-old Celia Teague of Hickory spoke in the hallway as people filed out.
Ms. CELIA TEAGUE (Obama Supporter): I'm through with Reverend Wright and what he has to say. What I want to focus on is the issues and what concerns us here in Hickory, and I think that's what the media needs to focus on. Because we have problems here. We've had a lot of plants that have closed, the gas prices are high, we have people that need healthcare, that can't afford healthcare. And so my focus is not on Reverend Wright or what anything Reverend Wright has to say.
GONYEA: Teague is an Obama supporter. The senator needs voters who have not been in his camp to come to the same conclusion. All of this comes just one week before the next round of primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, where he needs a pair of wins to reclaim the attention now being paid to Reverend Wright and to Obama's rival, Hillary Clinton.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, traveling with the Obama campaign.
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