Outside of his rousing speeches, it's rare that Barack Obama shows any emotion on the campaign trail, other than to flash a grin at his supporters or to chuckle at one of his own jokes. Sometimes he reveals just enough passion to sound snippy at reporters when he feels their questions are trivial.
But nothing over the course of the 15 months of his presidential campaign—not his announcement in Springfield, Ill., his landmark victory in Iowa or his shock defeat in New Hampshire—nothing came close to the emotions on display at the back of a sports arena in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Tuesday.
In a narrow concrete space enclosed by tall black drapes set up for a press conference, Obama sounded both angered and saddened by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's performance at the National Press Club on Monday. For all the focus on polling and next week's primaries in North Carolina and Indiana, it was clear that Obama's reaction to his former pastor was more personal than political.
"I am outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday," he told reporters. "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 wasn't the person that I met 20 years ago. The comments weren't only divisive and destructive. I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. I believe they don't portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs. And if Reverend Wright thinks that is political posturing, as he put it, then he doesn't know me very well. And based on his remarks yesterday, I may not know him as well as I thought, either."
For a campaign that had little comment on Wright's media blitz on Monday, Obama's press conference was a complete reversal. Many pundits have wondered aloud why Barack Obama has not had a Sister Souljah moment in this campaign, evoking Bill Clinton's 1992 repudiation of the hip-hop star's inflammatory and racist comments. In Winston-Salem Obama went far beyond Clinton's criticism, disowning his former pastor—and running the risk of alienating a community on the South Side of Chicago that has been among his most ardent supporters.
Yet it didn't sound as though Obama was in the mood for political calculation on Tuesday. Instead he appeared dismayed not just by the offensive nature of Wright's comments—specifically Wright's accusations that the U.S. government had unleashed HIV/AIDS on the African-American community and engaged in "terrorism" overseas. He also seemed offended by Wright's suggestion that his speech on race in Philadelphia was a case of political pandering.
Having watched Wright's performance in Washington on Monday, Obama said, "What became clear to me was it was more than just him defending himself. What became clear to me was he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for. And what particularly angered me was his suggestion that somehow my previous denunciations of his remarks were political posturing. Anybody who knows me, and anybody who knows what I'm about, knows that I'm trying to bridge gaps and that I see the commonality in all people."
Obama made it clear that he felt disrespected by Wright, as well as shocked and outraged by Wright's comments. He even suggested that he was considering leaving Trinity, although he had not yet spoken to Wright's successor, the Rev. Otis Moss, about his position. "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," Obama said. "And, you know, when I go to church, it's not for spectacle. It's to pray and to find a stronger sense of faith. It's not to posture politically. It's not to hear things that violate my core beliefs."
Obama's aides have long resigned themselves to their inability to influence Wright and his behavior. But what they could control was Obama's own response. When Wright's rants first emerged several weeks ago, Obama tried—in his own words—to "construct something positive" out of the controversy, in the form of his Philadelphia speech on race in America.
Now Obama was faced with the spectacle of his former pastor, whom he suggested was feeling angry about the media attacks and finding it difficult to retire from his church. "I understand he has gone through difficult times of late and he's leaving his ministry after many years," Obama said. "And that may account for the change. But the insensitivity and outrageousness of his statements and his performance in the question-and-answer period yesterday I think shocked me, and it surprised me."
Whatever happens to the Reverend Wright story now, one thing is clear: the long relationship between the pastor and the politician is forever changed. And Obama has had to spend yet another day trying to regain the narrative of his campaign.