Wright grants first TV interview since controversy

Rev. Wright: Sermons controversy 'unfair'
April 24, 2008 9:00:31 PM PDT
Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of Senator Barack Obama, is speaking out for the first time about the firestorm surrounding some of his past sermons and their impact on Obama's presidential campaign. Reverend Wright said airing only portions of his sermons was "unfair" and "devious," and it was done by people who don't know about his church.

Reverend Wright recently retired after building Trinity United Church of Christ into a powerful religious institution on Chicago's South Side. Now he is finally launching a PR offensive aimed at undoing some of the damage to him and Obama by appearing on PBS Friday night, delivering a keynote address to an NAACP conference this weekend and meeting with reporters from around the country next week.

Excerpts from the PBS interview were available Thursday, and while they do humanize Wright and put the controversy in context, they also fan the flames of a political issue that Obama is trying to put behind hin.

"We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki and thousands in New York and we never batted an eye," Wright said in one sermon.

"What did you think when you began to see those very brief sound bites circulating as they did?" asked Bill Moyers of PBS.

"I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt that those who were doing that were doing it for some very devious reasons," Wright answered.

Obama's former pastor reflected for the first time publicly on the firestorm of controversy that followed the 24-7 airing of his most inflammatory comments during sermons about American racism and foreign policy.

"Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they want to do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic," Wright said.

"What do you think they wanted to communicate?" Moyers asked.

"I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic and I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech. And by the way, guess who goes to his church? Hint, hint, hint," said Wright.

"They express a distorted view of this country," Obama said of the comments last month.

"How did it go down with you when you heard Barack Obama say those things?" Moyers asked.

"It went down very, he's a politician. I'm a pastor," said Wright.

Obama, who condemned the remarks but not Wright himself, before and after delivering a thoughtful speech on the issue of race in Philadelphia last month, wasn't commenting on Wright's TV interview as he met with a union group in Chicago Thursday. But Hammond, Indiana, Mayor Tom McDermott Jr., who supports Hillary Clinton says that it's all part of a rough-and-tumble presidential campaign.

"I understand that in an election year these issues come up," said McDermott.

The Obama campaign is expected to issue a statement responding to Wright's interview but we don't have it yet.

Wright also emphasized that he never heard Obama make any comments like the ones he's made. The two have never talked politics, only religion and spiritual issues, Wright said.

And Reverend Wright believes that some media outlets overplayed the most inflammatory remarks without providing context or explanation deliberately in an attempt to damage Obama's campaign, which they apparently have.

As one political professor put it, Reverend Wright is in a suit and tie and looks more like you're grandfather. Political science professor Michael Mezey says Moyers' interview could help Obama.

"There is an intrinsic fairness on the part of Americans, and I think that they will - given the opportunity - put Rev. Wright into a larger context," said Mezey.

The professor says Wright's sermons are part of sound bite politics. And this week, Republicans in North Carolina unveiled an ad using Wright, against GOP nominee John McCain's wishes. The professor says, again, it's a sound bite.

"I'm not sure any person would want his entire career reduced in that way. So I think what Rev. Wright is doing is saying, 'Look, here I am. This is what I've done, this is what I've accomplished," said Mezey.

Professor Mezey says ultimately Rev. Wright is a side issue in the overall campaign. Voters are still worried about gas prices, the economy, home foreclosures and the Iraq war.

The entire interview with Bill Moyers airs Friday night at 9:30 on PBS.

Wright said that, as an activist, he is accustomed to being "at odds with the establishment," but the response to the sermons has been "very, very unsettling."

Among the most remarked upon sound bites was Wright proclaiming from the pulpit "God damn America" for its racism. He accused the government of flooding black neighborhoods with drugs.

"The blowing up of sermons preached 15, seven, six years ago and now becoming a media event, not the full sermon, but the snippets from the sermon ... having made me the target of hatred, yes, that is something very new," Wright told "Bill Moyers' Journal."

"I felt it was unfair. I felt it was unjust. I felt it was untrue. I felt -- for those who were doing that -- were doing it for some very devious reasons," he said.

Wright gave the interview as presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and the North Carolina GOP argue over a TV ad with Obama and the pastor scheduled to run Monday, ahead of the state's crucial May 6 primary. A narrator in the spot says, "He's just too extreme for North Carolina." McCain has asked local officials not to run the ad, but the state GOP said no.

Wright is scheduled to speak Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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