Jeremiah Wright's Bombshell

If the Obama campaign raises hopes that America could get past its racially riven history, Wright is here to remind us what a huge feat it would be to make that dream a reality.Watching Jeremiah Wright's speech to the National Press Club Monday morning was both cathartic and alarming.

Cathartic because, after weeks of the endlessly repeated soundbites from his controversial sermons, which have been used to tar his former parishioner Barack Obama, Wright got to speak up for himself. He spoke plainly about racism, his own leftwing political point of view, and what he called, wryly, "this unknown phenomenon of the black church."

Much of what Wright said was absolutely true--yet too hot for white America, for the National Press Club, and for a mainstream U.S. Presidential campaign. It was not great for Obama, whom Wright hinted has distanced himself from his former minister only because he's "a politician" doing "what politicians do.”

In his appearance on Bill Moyers' show Friday, as well as his Press Club speech, Wright blew away any hope the Obama campaign may have had that he would stay mum and let the storm of controversy he kicked up with his impolitic sermons pass.

Instead, Wright came out swinging, mocking the media for knowing nothing about the black church, for taking soundbites from his sermons out of context, and, basically, for being lazy and ignorant.

He called the news generated by his controversial remarks "the most recent attack on the black church." And while he clearly takes the media characterizations of him personally ("Those are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic, divisive principles," he said), he couched his decision to speak up now as a defense of his people--the people of the black church.

"If you think I'm going to let you talk about my mama and her religion . . . you've got another thing coming," Wright told the press.

At times he seemed cocky, clearly enjoying putting his Press Club hosts' noses out of joint and playing to the crowd of supporters. At times he seemed a little confused, saying both that Obama had and hadn't distanced himself from Wright within the space of a minute.

He talked a lot about reconciliation, but at the same time, in heated terms, he outlined the ugly history of racism in our country, from slavery to Jim Crow to the Klan to gross economic disparities today. There was a lot of anger visible under the surface of that tight smile. And, most alarmingly for the Obama campaign and its supporters, there was ample fodder for more endlessly recycled sound bites. Fox News will have a field day.

It was striking to hear the themes of Wright's speech: the criticism of U.S. militarism and imperialism, racial and economic injustice, the references to progressive figures from Cornel West to Jim Wallis, and watch the audience and the press corps react.

Most progressives, and even most Democrats, understand where Wright is coming from. Just as Bill Moyers made reference to his previous encounters with Wright and the friends they have in common, many of the touchstones of his politics are familiar to both black America and progressive America.

What will this mean for the rest of the nation?

To be sure, Wright's refusal to denounce Louis Farrakhan, his angry-sounding declaration that Farrakhan didn't put him in chains or "make me this color," his assertion that "yes, I believe our country is capable of doing anything" in answer to a question about whether he thinks the United States deliberately infected black people with AIDS will be held against him.

But the audience of his friends and supporters ate up his strikes back against what has surely been a racist and unfair campaign against him. Wright's 9/11 sermon, though it looks, in soundbite form, supremely insensitive, was actually a profoundly moving statement on the tragedy and on the desperate, destructive logic of revenge.Q

The "chickens coming home to roost" line was a quote from a U.S. ambassador, by the way, not Wright's own words. Wright is a scholar, and he brings layers of meaning and a nuanced understanding to the great themes he addresses. But that is quickly lost in a cable news report.

Unlike Obama, who is relentlessly positive, Wright's points in his speech tended to characterize the U.S. government as an agent of evil more than a beacon of hope. "While our government cuts Food Stamps and spends billions fighting an unjust war in Iraq," he said, his own church has been working hard to serve the poor. In many ways, he pointed out "our congregation" was right, when the U.S. was wrong. On slavery, South African apartheid, and other issues throughout history, he pointed out the leadership of his church, contrasted with the benighted thinking of the U.S. government. "While those who call me unpatriotic have used their position of privilege to avoid military service . . . sending others to die for a lie."

Furthermore, Wright pointed out, "the Christianity of the slaveholder is NOT the Christianity of the slave."

So much for national or religious unity. Wright doesn't hesitate to puncture the national myth of America's essential goodness. It is with his church that his loyalty lies.

None of which is terribly shocking to those of us who are quite familiar with the U.S. government's misdeeds over time. But it's a heck of a message to send mainstream American voters.

"We must root out racism or there will be no reconciliation," Wright declared. Or, as the kids say, "No Justice, No Peace."

Needless to say, this is not the Obama campaign jingle.

Wright fielded questions on all his controversial statements. Including patriotism:

"I served six years years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?" he said to wild applause.

Good point.

We'll see what the press, whom he clearly enjoyed teasing, makes of it. And what the voters have to say. Not to mention Obama. If the Obama campaign raises hopes that America could get past its racially riven history, Wright is here to remind us what a huge feat it would be to make that dream a reality.