WHAT'S LEFT to ask Barack Obama about his extraordinary speech about race delivered last Tuesday here in Philadelphia? I was one of about 300 spectators for the remarks at the National Constitution Center and was asking that of myself as I prepared to interview Sen. Obama Friday night.
Of course, the days leading up to that address were saturated - 15 seconds at a time with the fiery rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And the hours and days after it were similarly stuffed with clips and critiques of Obama's response. I thought the speech was stunning, and used that exact word to describe it that night on MSNBC's "Hardball" with Chris Matthews. I spent much of the remainder of the week discussing it on the radio, TV and in print.
When I entered the auditorium at the National Constitution Center, I was thinking like Howard Baker in the Watergate era: What did Obama hear and when did he hear it? I thought he answered that inquiry during the course of his 37-minute address. And he was able to do so by distancing himself from Rev. Wright's most "hatriolic" comments without throwing the man under the presidential campaign bus:
"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed."
I thought the most significant part of his speech was when he explained how Rev. Wright was wrong.
"The profound mistake of Rev. Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black, Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old - is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past."
So when it came my turn to question Sen. Obama, for an interview that aired yesterday morning on my radio program on The Big Talker 1210, I wanted to know whether he'd ever told Rev. Wright that same thing behind closed doors?
"I'll be honest with you," Sen. Obama told me, "I didn't have that many conversations with him over the last year just because I've been so busy. I haven't been going to church. I wasn't hearing a lot of these comments. In fact, the ones that are most offensive are ones that I just never knew about until they were reported on.
"I had conversations with him in the past - in fact from the day that I first met him - about some of his views. But understand this, something else that I think has not gotten reported on enough, is despite these very offensive views, this guy has built one of the finest churches in Chicago. It's not some crackpot church. I mean, witness the fact that Bill Clinton invited him to the White House when he was having his personal crisis.
"This is a pillar of the community and if you went there this Easter Sunday and you sat down in the pew, you'd think, 'Well this is just like any other church.' You got kids and little girls with bows in their hair and people dressed in their Sunday finest. They're talking about Jesus and the Resurrection.
"So I don't want to suggest that somehow this was . . . the loop that you've been seeing typified services all the time. But that's the danger of the YouTube era. It doesn't excuse what he said, but it is to just give it some perspective so people understand."
This, I thought, raised the question of whether Sen. Obama believed that his speech would itself have come as a surprise to the former pastor? Obama told me it wouldn't.
"Some of these remarks first came to light a year ago. And I actually called him and they created some tensions that were reported in the newspapers. He, I think, understood that his perspective on some of these issues was very different from mine. Hopefully we could agree to disagree on some of these issues. Again, I wasn't familiar with some of the most offensive remarks that had come up. Otherwise we probably would have had a more intense conversation." *
Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.