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Making The Wright Enemy

I thought Obama put the distance he needed to between himself and Wright just now. Key passage (and this is a rough, contemporaneous transcript):

His [Wright's] comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate. They do not portray accurately the perspective of the black church. They certainly don’t portray accurately my attitude and beliefs. If Reverend Wright thinks that’s political posturing, then he doesn’t know me well. Based on his remarks, I may not know him either.

The question, as Chris Matthews suggests, is what's Wright's next move--and, when it comes, how will voters react. Given what we've seen so far, it's hard to believe Wright will keep quiet after being so thoroughly thrashed. My guess is that when the Wright reaction comes, people will view it through the prism of Obama's harsh criticism. As my colleague Leon Wieseltier puts it (and Bill Clinton demonstrated with Sister Souljah), sometimes it's just as important to have the right enemies as the right friends. And Obama, for better or for worse, now has the right enemy. Or at least he will once Wright goes live with his response.

The other lingering question is whether people will wonder all over again how Obama could have been friends with this guy for 20 years. It's a legitimate concern, but if it didn't weigh him down too much after the Phildelphia speech in March, I wouldn't expect it to do him in this time. Wright's "performance" yesterday struck me as new and brazen enough to warrant a different reaction than Obama would have had in the past.

For what it's worth, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall, who lived in Chicago for years and heard Wright preach at Trinity several times, said she was shocked by Wright's National Press Club performance yesterday, too. She says she suspects that lots of her and Obama's fellow parishioners had the same reaction. It'll be interesting to see if other Trinity members come forward with similar responses--and, in general, whether the church membership sides with Obama or Wright in this back-and-forth.

Update: Here's the lede to Tom Edsall's piece in The Washington Post the day after the famous Clinton speech in June 1992:

Bill Clinton yesterday stunned Jesse L. Jackson and members of the Rainbow Coalition by criticizing the organization for giving a public forum to rap singer Sister Souljah, whose words in the aftermath of the Los Angeles rioting Clinton said were "filled with hatred."

At the end of a relatively routine speech to the Rainbow Coalition, and with Jackson seated to his left, Clinton -- who has clinched the Democratic presidential nomination -- said:

"You had a rap singer here last night [on a panel] named Sister Souljah. . . . Her comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor today and tonight. Just listen to this, what she said: She told The Washington Post about a month ago, and I quote, 'If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . So if you're a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?' "

As Jackson -- who just minutes before mentioned specifically and with obvious pride that Souljah had been on the previous night's program -- stared straight ahead, Clinton said: "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech."

Clinton's frank remarks seemed designed to demonstrate his willingness to challenge core Democratic constituent groups and to begin to break his image in the public as a "political" person who would bend to pressure from major forces within his party. 

Update 2: Commenter virginiacentrist has an interesting thought:

The problem isn't just that Rev. Wright will lash back against Obama. The problem is that Rev. Wright probably KNOWS TOO MUCH. I'm not talking about illegal activity...but there HAS to be something embarassing that Rev. Wright knows about Obama to use against him.

My guess is that the HRC people are quietly contacting Rev. Wright and mining him for dirt on Obama. This would be the time to do it - right when Wright is most angry, and Obama is most vulnerable.

This is why Obama has refrained from attacking Wright. Not because of friendship - but because he always feared that Wright would lash back, and the media would be all to willing to hand over the microphone to this clown.

I don't see Wright dishing to Clinton operatives. But it wouldn't shock me if he unloaded to the media, which would be damaging. On the other hand, the guy's credibility isn't the highest it's ever been at this point...

--Noam Scheiber