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Interview with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's "Countdown"

March 15, 2008

OLBERMANN: Joining us now from Chicago with his first interview on this subject, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

OBAMA: Thanks, Keith. Sorry we're a little bit late. I hope we don't mess up the COUNTDOWN.

OLBERMANN: No problem, we'll stretch it out here for this. Your campaign saying this afternoon, it had no plans to ask Reverend Wright to step down. Obviously, that has changed. Did he step down tonight or did you ask him to leave?

OBAMA: You know, I think, there was a recognition that he's on the verge of retirement, he's taking a sabbatical and it was important for him to step out of the spotlight in this situation.

OLBERMANN: There's an awful lot of strong material that is now on videotape. We have played it. I see no reason to play it again, but a phrase that suggests that "God damn America" is a better phrase to use than "God bless America." Can you characterize your own reactions to this? Did you know that he made these statements before the videotape appeared?

OBAMA: You know, frankly, I didn't. I wasn't in church during the time when the statements were made. Now, I think it's, Keith, important to point out that he's been preaching for 30 years. He is a man who was a former Marine who served this country, a biblical scholar, somebody who's spoken at theological schools all across the country, and is widely regarded as a preacher. That's the man I know. That's the person who was the pastor of this church.

I did not hear such incendiary language myself, personally, either in conversations with him or when I was in the pew. He always preached the social gospel and was sometimes controversial in the same way that many people who'd speak out on social issues are controversial.

But these particular statements that had been gathered are ones that I strongly objected to and strongly condemned. Had I heard them in church, I would have expressed that concern directly to Reverend Wright. So, I didn't familiar with these until recently.

OLBERMANN: How do you characterize given your long association with him, given the fact that he officiated at the marriage of you and your wife, how do balance this line of what you have to do at this point from a political point of view and from what you have to do from personal point of view relative to these comments and your long history with him? Do you repudiate the man, do you repudiate the comments, do you repudiate both?

OBAMA: No, I would do not repudiate the man. As I said, this is somebody who I have known for 17 years. He helped bring me to Jesus and helped bring me to church. And, you know, he and I have a relationship, he's like an uncle who has talked to me, not about political things and not about social views, as much as about faith and God and family.

And he's somebody who is widely respected throughout Chicago and around the country for many of the things that he's done not only as a pastor but also as a preacher. But I have to say that the comments that have been played are ones that are contrary to what I believe, what I think of this country, the love that I have for this country and, you know, are ones that anger and distress me.

So, you know, I would describe it as a member of your family who does, says something that you really disagree with. They don't stop being a member of your family, but you have to speak out forcefully on the issue.

OLBERMANN: Do you expect whether it's now or if you are the nominee later on, do you expect to be addressing commercials from 527 groups or commercials from other candidates using the tapes of Pastor Wright? And how would you do so?

OBAMA: Yes, I think there's no doubt that his will be used as political fodder as it has been in the past. You know, these kinds of things. And, you know, what I hope is the American people will trust that what I believe, my values, my I deals, what I've spoken about in terms of bringing the country together, that all those things override guilt by association, and that's going to be one of the things that we talk about throughout this campaign. And frankly, that's something that every candidate has to deal with. So, you know, I'm confident in the American people that they will hold me accountable for what I say, what I do and what I believe. Now, one thing that I do hope to do is to use some of these issues to talk more fully about the question of race in our society, because part of what we're seeing here is Reverend Wright represents a generation that came of age in the 60s.

He's an African-American man, who, because of his life experience continues to have a lot of anger and frustration, and will express that in ways that are very different from me and my generation, partly because I benefited from the struggles of that early generation. And so, part of what we're seeing here is a transition from the past to the future. And I hope that our politics represents the future.

OLBERMANN: There is a second story, senator, involving your campaign tonight. We're told, "The Chicago Tribune" today, the story was on their Web site that the Chicago businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko was a more significant contributor to your previous campaigns that had been previously publicly known, raised about a $250,000 for your first three campaigns. Why are we only hearing about this today?

OBAMA: Well, that's not actually accurate. I mean, I think that what we did was we went to "The Tribune" to try to disgorge any additional information that they wanted. And the story about my relationship with Mr. Rezko has been consistent throughout.

What we did was we talked about the fundraising that he had done for my State Senate race, my two State Senate races, a Congressional race as well as my United States Senate race, and the total amount is what, is the figure that they put forward. That's not actually something that is particularly new or different, as I've said before. He's somebody who raised money for my campaign during the course of 10 years. But the more important part of the story was to confirm and reiterate with full documentation that there's nothing in my relationship with Mr. Rezko that any way relates to the corruption trial that he's involved with right now, that there's no allegations that I was involved in anything wrong, and that is something we have been consistent about throughout this campaign.

OLBERMANN: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois on two very controversial and important stories breaking today. Great thanks for your time, senator.

OBAMA: Thank you so much for taking the time. I appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's "Countdown" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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