While watching the Rev. Jeremiah Wright hold forth yesterday at the National Press Club, I began to entertain the notion that perhaps the guy was a Republican mole - trained in secret and dispatched by Karl Rove, or by one of his proteges, with instructions to inflict maximum damage on the Obama campaign.
But no. There is no need for GOP mischief-makers to lift a finger, not when Obama's spiritual mentor seems capable of doing the work all by himself.
Here's Obama, trying to get his sea legs again after suffering a third consecutive big-state defeat, trying to convince downscale, modestly-educated whites in Indiana and North Carolina that he's not some scary apparition...and there's Wright, crashing into the news cycle four days running, offering up new provocative soundbites to replace the old.
Twenty years ago, Michael Dukakis, the Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate, was dragged down in part because the GOP hung Willie Horton around his neck. (Horton was the black con who committed rape and murder while participating in a Massachusetts prison furlough program.) But as scary symbols go, at least Horton wasn't out there on the stump, commanding a national audience, talking up the benefits of that Dukakis furlough program.
Obviously, I'm not equating Wright with Horton, or trying to demean the former by citing the latter. Suffice it to say that any beleaguered candidate would prefer that his albatrosses, whoever they might be, remain totally mute.
But in Andy Warhol terms, Wright is intent on getting his 15 minutes. Clearly he seeks to defend his honor and reputation, admirable goals. But this is difficult to do in the midst of an unusually intense presidential campaign, where there is no guarantee that a black pastor's statements will be treated with the context that he demands. In political terms, all Wright managed to do yesterday was pour fuel on the fire and provide new material for YouTube.
When asked whether he really believed that the government might have plotted to inflict AIDS on black people, he replied: "I believe our government is capable of anything."
When asked whether he wanted to back away from his 2001 assertion that America had to share the blame for what happened on 9/11, he replied: "You cannot do terrorism on other people and not expect it to come back on you."
And when asked about Obama's repeated attempts to distance himself from Wright, the pastor replied: "Politicians say what they say and do what they do because of electability...He had to distance himself because he's a politician."
For Republicans (and perhaps for Hillary Clinton), those first two statements are the equivalent of hot fudge sundaes with cherries on top. And the latter statement about Obama is arguably just as bad, because Wright was implying that Obama was merely distancing himself for reasons of tactical calculation, and not necessarily because of what the candidate might believe in his heart.
The Obama people have been knocked off their game by all this. It's evident by their multiple forms of response. One tactic, of course, is to simply blame the media (naturally); as strategist David Axelrod said last night on CNN, "I don't think it's taking (Obama) off message. Maybe it's taking you guys off message."
At another point, early yesterday, the Obama people insisted that the candidate would not say anything further about Wright. Then they decided, late yesterday, that Obama did need to say something, lest Wright own the day's news cycle. So he did, urging the primary season voters to focus on him, not on "folks in my past."
But it might be hard for voters to heed that advice, given Wright's insistence on crashing into the present.