Obama, Smerconish talk church, bin Laden

In an interview aired this morning on the Big Talker (WPHT, 1210-AM), Barack Obama defended his Chicago church, distanced himself further from its former pastor, and spoke about going after Osama bin Laden.

"This is not a crackpot church," the Democratic presidential candidate said of Trinity United Church of Christ. ". . . This is a pillar of the community, and if you go there on Easter, this Easter Sunday, and you sat down there in the pew, you would think this is just like any other church."

Questions have been raised about the Illinois senator's place of worship because its former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., has called the country the "U.S. of KKK A" and has denounced American policies as corrupt and racist.

Obama told WPHT host Michael Smerconish these isolated excerpts give a distorted picture.

"The ones that are most offensive are ones that I never knew about until they were reported on," he said during the interview, which was taped Friday night and played back at 7:30 a.m. today. ". . . I don't want to suggest that somehow, the loops you have been seeing typified services all the time. But that is the danger of the YouTube era. It doesn't excuse what he said. But it does give it some perspective."

Obama, in discussing Wright, also pointed out that "Bill Clinton invited him to the White House when he was having his personal crises."

A photograph of President Clinton with Wright appeared on the New York Times' Web site Friday, with the note: "On Thursday night, the Obama campaign, to shift the spotlight to the Clintons, provided The New York Times with a picture of Mr. Wright and President Bill Clinton at the White House in 1998 at a breakfast meeting with religious leaders hours before the Starr report on the Monica Lewinsky scandal was made public. The campaign also provided a letter Mr. Clinton sent to Mr. Wright the next month thanking Mr. Wright for a 'kind message' and saying he was touched by his prayers."

Smerconish, who wrote about Obama in his weekly Inquirer column yesterday, also discussed the failure to find Osama bin Laden.

Smerconish: "Pakistan . . . it looks like for six-and-a-half years we've been outsourcing the hunt for bin Laden to a guy [President Musharraf of Pakistan] with no motivation to get him. Do you agree with my assessment?"

Obama: "Absolutely. You may be aware of the fact that I made a speech in August, you remember that I got criticized . . .

Smerconish: "Not by me, Senator, I applauded you."

Obama: "I know. Sen. Clinton, Sen. McCain and George Bush all suggested that I said something wrong when I said we should be going after bin Laden, in high-value targets, and if we've got him in our sites, we should ask for Pakistan's cooperation, we should ask Pakistan to take him out. But if they don't, we shouldn't need permission to go after folks that killed 3,000 Americans.

"In fact, ironically, I think you may know, that several weeks ago we took out the third-ranking al- Qaeda member and we implemented exactly that strategy that I have been criticized for. We used one of those drones. We got the guy in our targets, in our sights, we informed the Pakistan government, we didn't wait for them. . . ."

"That's part of the reason I've been a critic from the start of the war in Iraq. It's not that I was opposed to war, it's that I felt that we had a war that we had not finished. Al-Qaeda is stronger now than at any point since 2001, and we've got to do something about it because those guys have a safe haven there and they are still planning to do Americans harm, and my job as commander in chief is to going to be to protect Americans."

Smerconish: "John McCain says he'd follow him to the gates of hell. I just want him followed to the border of Pakistan."

Obama: "I'm not sure whether you stole my line or I stole yours, because that's exactly what I said in a speech on Thursday. If you're going to follow him to the gates of hell, why don't you just start by going to where he is right now?"

Later this morning, Smerconish said in an interview that he "put up with a lot of antagonism" from e-mailers and callers because he had praised Obama's major speech on the racial divide, which was delivered last Tuesday at the National Constitution Center.

On MSNBC's Hardball, Smerconish called the speech "stunning" because Obama dared to speak frankly on the subject, he said.

Obama's "an un-P.C. guy," whose biography, Dreams of My Father, is also refreshingly candid, Smerconish said. "That's what I like. I think we can handle the truth. You score points with me by having a direct conversation."

On the other hand, Obama "hasn't even paid lip service to illegal immigration," and "needs to convince me that he can be a steward of the economy," Smerconish said.

McCain has been a guest before, so Smerconish hopes to next land Hillary or Bill Clinton as a guest. "My expectation is that I get one of the Clintons in the next four weeks," he said.

To hear the a podcast of the Obama interview, go to http://www.thebigtalker1210.com

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.