Press Conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Remarks by Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: 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 Reverend 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 Reverend 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 Reverend 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, Reverend 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 Senator Clinton or John McCain. It's not about Reverend 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 Reverend 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.
So with that, let me take some questions.
Q: What are you going to do --
Q: Senator --
Q: Senator --
SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, go ahead.
Q: Why the change of tone from yesterday? When you spoke to us on the tarmac yesterday, you didn't have this sense of anger, outrage --
SEN. OBAMA: Yeah. I'll be honest with you: because I hadn't seen it yet.
Q: And that was the difference you --
SEN. OBAMA: Yes.
Q: Had you heard the reports about the AIDS comment?
SEN. OBAMA: I had not. I had not seen the transcript. What I had heard was that he had given a performance. And I thought at the time that it would be sufficient simply to reiterate what I had said in Philadelphia. Upon watching it, what became clear to me was that it was more than just a -- it was more than just him defending himself. What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that -- that -- that contradicts who I am and what I stand for. And what I think particularly angered me was his suggestion somehow that my previous denunciation of his remarks were somehow political posturing. Anybody who knows me and anybody who knows what I'm about knows that -- that I am about trying to bridge gaps and that I see the -- the commonality in all people.
And so when I start hearing comments about conspiracy theories and AIDS and suggestions that somehow Minister Farrakhan has -- has been a great voice in the 20th century, then that goes directly at who I am and what I believe this country needs.
Q: Senator, what do you expect or what do you plan to do about this right now to further distance yourself, if you think you're going to do that? And does this say about your judgment to superdelegates, who are right trying to decide which Democratic nominee is better? Because your candidacy has been based on judgment, what does this say about it?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, as I said before, the person I saw yesterday was not the person that I had come to know over 20 years. I understand that -- I think he was pained and angered from what had happened previously, during the first stage of this controversy. I think he felt vilified and attacked, and I understand that he wanted to defend himself.
I understand that, you know, he's gone through difficult times of late, and that he's leaving his ministry after many years. And so, you know, that may account for the change.
But the insensitivity and the outrageousness, of his statements and his performance in the question-and-answer period yesterday, I think, shocked me. It surprised me. As I said before, this is an individual who has built a very fine church and a church that is well- respected throughout Chicago.
During the course of me attending that church, I had not heard those kinds of statements being made or those kinds of views being promoted. And I did not vet my pastor before I decided to run for the presidency. I was a member of the church.
So you know, I think what it says is that, you know, I have not, you know, I did not run through -- run my pastor through the paces or review every one of the sermons that he had made over the last 30 years. But I don't think that anybody could attribute those ideas to me.
Q: What effect do you think this is going to have on your campaign?
SEN. OBAMA: You know, that's something that you guys will have to figure out. And you know, obviously we've got elections in four or five days. So we'll find out, you know, what impact it has.
But ultimately I think that the American people know that we have to do better than we're doing right now. I think that they believe in the ideas of this campaign.
I think they are convinced that special interest have dominated Washington too long. I think they are convinced that we've got to get beyond some of the same political games that we've been playing. I think they believe that we need to speak honestly and truthfully about how we're going to solve issues like energy or health care.
And I believe that this campaign has inspired a lot of people. And that's part of what, you know, going back to what you asked, Mike, about why I feel so strongly about this today.
You know, after seeing Reverend Wright's performance, I felt as if there was a complete disregard, for what the American people are going through and the need for them to rally together to solve these problems.
You know, now is the time for us not to get distracted. Now is the time for us to pull together.
And that's what we've been doing in this campaign. And, you know, there was a sense that that did not matter to Reverend Wright. What mattered was him commanding center stage.
Q: Have you had a conversation with Reverend Wright and --
SEN. OBAMA: No.
Q: What's going to happen if these distractions continue?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, the -- 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. I don't -- more importantly, I don't think he showed much concern for what we are trying to do in this campaign and what we're trying to do for the American people and with the American people.
And obviously, he's free to speak out on issues that are of concern to him and he can do it in any ways that he wants. But I feel very strongly that -- well, I want to make absolutely clear that I do not subscribe to the views that he expressed. I believe they are wrong. I think they are destructive. And to the extent that he continues to speak out, I do not expect those views to be attributed to me.
Q: I remember after the story -- when the story immediately broke, Trinity Church -- the current pastor kind of defended Reverend Wright. I'm wondering -- I don't know how they reacted to the latest, but I'm wondering if you continue planning on attending Trinity.
SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, the new pastor -- the young pastor, Reverend Otis Moss, is a wonderful young pastor. And as I said, I still very much value the Trinity community. This -- I'll be honest, this obviously has put strains on that relationship, not because of the members or because of Reverend Moss but because this has become such a spectacle.
And, you know, when I go to church it's not for spectacle. It's to pray and to find -- to find a stronger sense of faith. It's not to posture politically. It's not -- you know, it's not to hear things that violate my core beliefs. And so -- you know, and I certainly don't want to provide a distraction for those who are worshipping at Trinity.
So as of this point, I'm a member of Trinity. I haven't had a discussion with Reverend Moss about it, so I can't tell you how he's reacting and how he's responding.
Okay? Katherine (sp)?
Q: Senator, I'm wondering -- to sort of follow on Jeff's question about you, know, why it's a little different now, have you heard from some of your supporters -- you know, you have some -- (off mike) -- supporters who expressed any alarm about what this might be doing to the campaign?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, the -- I mean, I don't think that it's that hard to figure out from -- if it was just a purely political perspective. You know, my reaction has more to do with what I want this campaign to be about and who I am. And I want to make certain that people understand who I am.
In some ways, what Reverend Wright said yesterday directly contradicts everything that I've done during my life. It contradicts how I was raised and the setting in which I was raised. It contradicts my decisions to pursue a career of public service. It contradicts the issues that I've worked on politically. It contradicts what I've said in my books. It's contradicts what I said my convention speech in 2004. It contradicts my announcement. It contradicts everything that I've been saying on this campaign trail.
And what I tried to do in Philadelphia was to provide a context and to lift up some of the contradictions and complexities of race in America -- of which, you know, Reverend Wright is a part and we're all a part -- and try to make something constructive out of it. But there wasn't anything constructive out of yesterday. All it was, was a bunch of rants that -- that aren't grounded in truth, and you know, I can't construct something positive out of that. I can understand it. I, you know, the -- you know, people do all sorts of things.
And as I said before, I continue to believe that Reverend Wright has been a -- a -- a leader in the South Side. I think that the church he built is outstanding. I think that he has preached in the past some wonderful sermons. He provided, you know, valuable contributions to my family.
But at a certain point, if what somebody says contradicts what you believe so fundamentally, and then he questions whether or not you believe it in front of the National Press Club, then that's enough. That's -- that's a show of disrespect to me. It's a -- it is also, I think, an insult to what we've been trying to do in this campaign.
Q: Senator, did you discuss with your wife, after having seen Reverend Wright -- (off mike) -- and what was her --
SEN. OBAMA: Yeah. No, she was similarly -- anger.
Q: Reverend Wright said that it was not an attack on him but an attack on the black church. First of all, do you agree with that?
And second of all, the strain of theology that he preached, black liberation theology, you explained something about the anger, that feeds some of the sentiments in the church, in Philadelphia.
How important a strain is liberation theology in the black church? And why did you choose to attend a church that preached that?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, in terms of liberation theology, I'm not a theologian. So I think to some theologians, there might be some well-worked-out theory of what constitutes liberation theology versus non-liberation-theology.
I went to church and listened to sermons. And in the sermons that I heard, and this is true, I do think, across the board in many black churches, there is an emphasis on the importance of social struggle, the importance of striving for equality and justice and fairness -- a social gospel.
So I think a lot of people would rather, rather than using a fancy word like that, simply talk about preaching the social gospel. And that -- there's nothing particularly odd about that. Dr. King obviously was the most prominent example of that kind of preaching.
But you know, what I do think can happen, and I didn't see this as a member of the church but I saw it yesterday, is when you start focusing so much on the plight of the historically oppressed, that you lose sight of what we have in common; that it overrides everything else; that we're not concerned about the struggles of others because we're looking at things only through a particular lens. Then it doesn't describe properly what I believe, in the power of faith, to overcome but also to bring people together.
Now, you had a first question, Joe, that I don't remember.
Q: Do you think --
SEN. OBAMA: Do I think --
Q: (Off mike.)
SEN. OBAMA: You know, the -- I did not view the initial round of soundbites, that triggered this controversy, as an attack on the black church. I viewed it as a simplification of who he was, a caricature of who he was and, you know, more than anything, something that piqued a lot of political interest.
I didn't see it as an attack on the black church. I mean, probably the only -- the only aspect of it that probably had to do with specifically the black church is the fact that some people were surprised when he was shouting. I mean, that is just a black church tradition. And so I think some people interpreted that somehow as -- wow, he's really -- he's hollering and black preachers holler and whoop and -- so that, I think, showed sort of a cultural gap in America.
You know, the sad thing is that although the sound bites I've -- as I stated, I think created a caricature of him. And when he was in that Moyers interview, even though there were some things that, you know, continued to be offensive, at least there was some sense of rounding out the edges. Yesterday I think he caricatured himself, and that was a -- as I said, that made me angry but also made me sad.
STAFF: Last question.
SEN. OBAMA: Richard.
Q: You talked about giving the benefit of the doubt before -- mostly, I guess, in the Philadelphia speech, trying to create something positive about that. Did you consult with him before the speech or talk to him after the speech in Philadelphia to get his reaction -- (off mike) --
SEN. OBAMA: You know, I tried to talk to him before the speech in Philadelphia. Wasn't able to reach him because he was on a -- he was on a cruise. He had just stepped down from the pulpit. When he got back, I did speak to him. And I -- you know, I prefer not to share sort of private conversations between me and him. I will talk to him perhaps some day in the future. But what I can say is that I was very clear that what he had said in those particular snippets, I found objectionable and offensive and that the intention of the speech was to provide context for them but not excuse them, because I found them inexcusable.
So -- yeah, go ahead.
Q: The other day, on Sunday, you were asked whether -- to respond to -- (off mike) -- is this -- you said you didn't believe in irreparable damage. Is this relationship with you and Wright irreparably damaged, do you think?
SEN. OBAMA: There's been great damage. You know, I -- it may have been unintentional on his part, but, you know, I do not see that relationship being the same after this. Now, to some degree, you know -- I know that one thing that he said was true, was that he wasn't -- you know, he was never my, quote-unquote, "spiritual adviser."
He was never my "spiritual mentor." He was -- he was my pastor. And so to some extent, how, you know, the -- the press characterized in the past that relationship, I think, wasn't accurate.
But he was somebody who was my pastor, and married Michelle and I, and baptized my children, and prayed with us at -- when we announced this race. And so, you know -- so I'm disappointed.
STAFF: Thank you.
SEN. OBAMA: All right. Thank you, guys. Appreciate it.
Barack Obama, Press Conference in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Remarks by Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/277660