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The Wright choice

By repudiating his controversial former pastor, Obama did what had to be done.

May 01, 2008

For nearly 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. was a spiritual touchstone for Barack Obama, reviving the latter's faith from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Now Wright and his "unashamedly black, unapologetically Christian" theology are looking more like Obama's millstone, threatening to sink his presidential campaign.

On Tuesday, in his second attempt to defuse the controversy, Obama did what he'd resisted the first time: He threw Wright under the wheels of his campaign bus. Framing the issue in purely personal terms, he accused Wright of exploiting racial divisions and distracting voters from the real issues. He also claimed that the Wright on display over the weekend wasn't the one he'd known at Trinity.

There was one element of Wright's latest remarks that hadn't gotten much attention previously: his genetic-determinism argument that blacks think, learn, pray and act differently than whites. That focus conflicts with the biracial Democratic candidate's core message of unifying Americans behind common goals. Still, it's hard to believe that Obama is discovering much about Wright now. Nor should he be surprised at how easy it is for the media and his political opponents to keep Wright in the spotlight -- particularly when Wright is so eager to steal it from his former parishioner. Sharp critiques of America might play well in the insular confines of a church, where congregants recognize and accept hyperbole for what it is. But they sound like extremism to the general public, which doesn't share the black experience in America and doesn't recognize the unspoken references to past events.

Obama countered Wright's angry oratory with graceful rhetoric once, but it didn't keep his erstwhile pastor quiet. So rather than giving another thoughtful critique of Americans' attitudes about race, Obama was right to denounce, clearly and specifically, Wright's most objectionable statements. It may have been a capitulation to his fiercest critics, but it was the repudiation that circumstances -- and Wright's latest pronouncements -- demanded.

Wright heads into retirement having accomplished what he set out to do, which was to keep the candidates talking about him and his views on race, regardless of what happens to the one he backs. The controversy might even help Obama define himself more clearly, and not just in terms of the things he doesn't believe. The issue of race in America, which invokes fundamental questions about the role of government and the distribution of wealth, is something the candidates should be discussing. It's too bad the conversation has revolved around someone who won't be on the ballot.

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