Before the press began looking into the inflammatory rhetoric of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, they fawned over his association with Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. In a Chicago Tribune profile that appeared just as Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency in January 2007, the Senator confirmed the close relationship with the firebrand preacher at Trinity United Church. Wright provides both a moral compass and political advice, Obama said — then:
Wright, 65, is a straight-talking pragmatist who arrived in Chicago as an outsider and became an institution. He has built a congregation of 8,500, including the likes of Oprah Winfrey and hip-hop artist Common, by offering an alternative to socially conservative black churches that are, Wright believes, too closely tied to Chicago’s political dynasties.
Obama, too, also came to the city as a young unknown. Emerging from relative obscurity with his win in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary race for a U.S. Senate seat, he found a growing audience by preaching the politics of social justice and common ground. He has encouraged Democrats to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of Americans. Now, he is positioning himself as a presidential candidate who can unify the American people.
Obama says that rather than advising him on strategy, Wright helps keep his priorities straight and his moral compass calibrated.
“What I value most about Pastor Wright is not his day-to-day political advice,” Obama said. “He’s much more of a sounding board for me to make sure that I am speaking as truthfully about what I believe as possible and that I’m not losing myself in some of the hype and hoopla and stress that’s involved in national politics.”
This sounds much different than Obama’s “old uncle” analogy that he has used of late as more of Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric has come to light. Wright has always stirred controversy, but not to the level that Obama feels now. Calling on his congregation to say “God damn America” and railing at Hillary Clinton because she has never been called the N-word may not have a great impact on the rapidly diminishing number of primary elections Obama has to face before winning the nomination. It will have a huge impact on how people see him in the general election, since as Obama himself stated in this piece, he seeks out Wright for political guidance before making any “bold” political moves.
What kind of advice would people believe him to receive from Wright, after having heard his sermons? And why would Obama seek it, and feel comfortable in the race-baiting environment Wright provides?
Obama may have less to lose than Oprah Winfrey, however. She has built a media empire by making herself accessible to women across all demographic lines. Not many people would associate Oprah’s easygoing nature and warm, welcomng appeal with the kind of oratory provided by Wright. Both Obama and Winfrey may have to tune their “old uncle” messages in the weeks and months ahead, if they want to continue their wide appeal to Americans who don’t feel compelled to ask for God’s damnation on the nation they love.
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