Obama Took On Jeremiah Wright—But So What?

Illustration for article titled Obama Took On Jeremiah Wright—But So What?

NEWSWEEK alumnus Richard Wolffe flags his juicy new book from the campaign trail: "Renegade: The Making of a President," with an excerpt at the DAILY BEAST. He recounts a secret meeting in Chicago with the president's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, at the height of the furor surrounding a series of sermons Wright delivered at Trinity United Church in Chicago:

Obama’s aides feared the worst from Wright’s return, and knew there would be only a week to recover from whatever damage he wrought before voting started in the next round of primaries….

It was time to talk directly to Wright. Over the next week, Obama’s friends at Trinity tried to talk their pastor out of his comeback tour. But by now the church was deeply divided between Obama supporters and Wright supporters, and the conversation was going nowhere. So the candidate decided to go see Wright himself in secret, in Chicago. First came the dance over where to meet: one intermediary suggested a neutral location, but Obama said he was happy to go wherever Wright wanted. They ended up talking at Wright’s home, and Obama tried to adopt the tone of a concerned friend giving advice. He did not want to tell his former pastor what to do, but he did want to nudge him in the right direction by making him aware of what was about to happen. Wright wasn’t heading for vindication; he was heading for vilification.


The bit about divided loyalties is fascinating. I reported a piece about Trinity United during the campaign, and—while my conclusion was that Wright could never let himself back down, or shut up—its no surprise that he had such loyal defenders in the Trinity pews. The man's three words: 'God Damn America", seemed to rip the country apart. But three decades of building a South Side religious empire had produced hundreds of church members who, despite loving Obama, were equally torn—and loth to toss their leader under the bus. As Rev. Michael Pfleger, an outspoken Chicago activist and friend of Wright, told me soon after the media bomb hit: "If Jeremiah is so bad, well damn, let me be that bad."

What's relevant now is what this encounter says about our president. I think it reinforces his committment to good faith negotiations, even on the tough stuffwith a side of a willingness to drop the hammer if necessary. And to visit Wright under cover of darkness, especially at a time of overweening media scrutiny, is pretty slick. Of course, Wolffe tries to sex this up, writing:

The exchanges were case studies in political psy-ops, Obama-style. He emerged with something less than success, and something more than failure. They were critical tests on his path to the presidency, and extraordinary examples of the personal strategies that are key to any president.

And here, Jason Zengerle wins the day, asking:

[I]f you emerge from a confrontation with "something less than success, and something more than failure," what do you really emerge with? Is it sort of like trying to return a defective TV to Best Buy and, instead of being given a refund, getting only store credit?


Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.