REWIND: Riding to Obama’s Rescue, After Wright’s Radicalism Exposed

Sixteen years ago this weekend, Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was in real trouble, after ABC publicized excerpts of sermons delivered by Obama’s longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The video showed Wright, in the pulpit, rationalizing the 9/11 attacks as justified (“America’s chickens are coming home to roost!”) and blasting America as the “U.S. of K.K.K.A.”

Obama, who had built his campaign around the idea of unity, had attended Wright’s church for two decades, so there could be no suggestion that the Democratic candidate was unfamiliar with his pastor’s rabidly anti-American views. At the time, Obama had only the slightest advantage over New York Senator Hillary Clinton, so any whiff of scandal could lead Democratic voters to abandon the freshman Senator in favor of the former First Lady.

Liberal journalists, however, adored Obama, so over the next several days the media elite became the candidate’s personal rapid-response team. The first line of defense: Wright’s radicalism was a phony issue that voters should ignore. “All this seems to have nothing to do with actual issues that the country is facing, which these candidates should be talking about and we probably should be talking about,” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper groaned on March 13, 2008, a few hours after ABC’s Brian Ross broke the story on Good Morning America.

“I don’t even know how these candidates can talk about policy,” MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell complained to The New Republic’s Michael Crowley the next afternoon (March 14). “How do we get away from this?”

That weekend, the Obama campaign decided that the way to end the discussion of Rev. Wright’s hatefulness was for Obama to start a broader discussion of race in America. The candidate spoke on Tuesday, March 18, 2008, and journalists instantly declared it the best speech of their lifetimes.

On ABC’s World News, anchor Charles Gibson saluted it as “the seminal speech of his presidential campaign…an extraordinary speech.” George Stephanopoulos decreed it was honorable that Obama should not repudiate Wright for his anti-American views: “By refusing to renounce Reverend Wright, that was in many ways an act of honor for Senator Obama.”

“It was daring,” fill-in anchor Campbell Brown exclaimed on CNN’s AC360. “Quietly, but clearly with great passion, he walked the listener through a remarkable exploration of race from both sides of the color divide, from both sides of himself.”

“It was a very blunt, very honest, very open speech that really put out into the open the furtive conversations and furtive thoughts on both sides of the racial divide that have been going on for generations,” the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart opined on NBC Nightly News, calling the speech “a very important gift the Senator has given the country.”

A speech worthy of Abraham Lincoln,” crowed MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, calling it “the best speech ever given on race in this country….I think this is the kind of speech I think first graders should see, people in the last year of college should see before they go out in the world. This should be, to me, an American tract. Something that you just check in with, now and then, like reading Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn….One of the great speeches in American history.”

“Most people will never hear the elegant complexity of Obama’s speech in full…though they certainly should,” Time’s Joe Klein enthused in his “Swampland” blog. “It was the best speech about race I’ve ever heard delivered by an American politician.”

The next morning (March 19), ABC’s Stephanopoulos was still thrilled: “As a speech, it was sophisticated, eloquent. Barack Obama is as fine a writer as you’ll find in a politician,” he touted on Good Morning America.

“It’s being called a defining cultural moment in America…It was without question a defining moment in American political history,” CBS’s Maggie Rodriguez echoed on The Early Show.

In that morning’s New York Times, a “news analysis” by Janny Scott suggested the candidate’s remarks belonged on a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of presidential addresses: “In a speech whose frankness about race many historians said could be likened only to speeches by Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln….”

On Easter Sunday, March 23, the media were still raving about Obama’s greatness. “He gave a great speech. I think it was a brave speech,” ABC’s Claire Shipman applauded on This Week. A few months later, Shipman’s husband (Time correspondent Jay Carney) would go to work for the Obama administration as Joe Biden’s first press secretary.

“Obama really won over his base, he won over the American media. They loved that speech,” quipped Politico’s Roger Simon on CBS’s Face  the Nation.

Indeed, a sympathetic media was crucial to the success of Obama’s strategy. Journalists’ glowing coverage transformed an exercise in crisis damage control into a campaign triumph. The episode undoubtedly helped to seal his victory over Hillary Clinton.

All with a little help from his friends.

For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.                
 

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