Barack Obama did everything he could Tuesday to distance himself from the absurd rants by his former pastor. He said he was outraged by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's assertions, which included that the U.S. government created the HIV virus to kill minorities, and condemned them. He said Wright's view "contradicts who I am and what I stand for,'' and that all Americans should be offended. But even that strong repudiation cannot erase the damage done to a presidential candidate who aimed to transcend race and now finds himself consumed by it.
If Obama made a mistake, it was in not being more forceful in his criticism of Wright in his landmark Philadelphia speech on race. That address was remarkable in its prose and themes. But it did not reassure many doubters who could not separate Obama from Wright's disturbing video comments criticizing the United States and calling on God to "damn America.'' As Obama said Tuesday, at the time he gave his former pastor the benefit of the doubt for his legitimate good works. Now he is paying a high price for it.
Wright's ravings this week on television and to the national media could not have been more damaging to the candidate. His claim that criticisms of his earlier sermons were an attack on the black church as an institution and his wild accusations against the U.S. government seemed calculated to inflame emotions and focus the spotlight on himself. Black churches are not monolithic, but they typically do not embrace Wright's warped view of the world. It may be difficult to understand why Obama remained personally close to this man for so many years, but it should not be hard to accept that the Illinois senator does not share his former pastor's offensive views.
Wright's ramblings seriously threaten Obama's historic campaign for the Democratic nomination. While he still leads Hillary Clinton in delegates and in the popular vote, Obama has lost momentum and become bogged down in the very wedge politics he sought to rise above. Wright has done the most damage, but the candidate has wounded himself with poorly worded observations about the role of guns and religion in small-town America. If he fails to win in North Carolina and Indiana next week, this nomination fight could get uglier as it staggers toward the Democratic National Convention in August.
While Obama has tried to elevate the campaign above the issue of race, the Clinton campaign, including former President Bill Clinton, has come close to playing the race card on more than one occasion. When Wright's rhetoric first surfaced, Hillary Clinton was content to let Obama squirm and pointedly said she would have found another church. Now she has another opportunity to rise to the occasion. She could condemn Wright's latest outbursts and still defend Obama as a fellow senator whose values are closer to her own than to those of his former pastor. That would elevate Clinton's own stature and help a bitterly divided Democratic Party try to move toward unity in the general election.
The race for the Democratic nomination should not be defined by the undertow of race and religion as embodied by the Rev. Wright. For some voters, it probably already is too late to pull this campaign out of this toxic stew that plays to their worst impulses. Obama has no recourse but to continue to speak out as clearly as he did Tuesday, and Clinton has an opportunity to seize the moment and help redefine this election.