WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Engulfed in fresh controversy over new inflammatory remarks by his former pastor, Sen. Barack Obama made a public break yesterday with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., denouncing the minister's latest comments as "outrageous," "appalling" and a contradiction of the senator's life work.
Obama, appearing visibly pained, did in a hastily called news conference what he had been reluctant to do since controversy initially erupted more than six weeks ago over Wright's sermons, repudiating not merely the words but the world view of a clergyman who had once been a close spiritual counselor and, by Obama's account, inspired him to embrace the Christian faith.
Obama was confronting news media coverage of Wright's fiery appearance Monday at the National Press Club, in which the minister reaffirmed his view that the U.S. government might have initiated the AIDS epidemic to wipe out racial minorities and praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as one of the most important voices of the 20th century.
"When I say I find these comments appalling, I mean it. It contradicts everything I am about and who I am," Obama said, adding that Wright's comments "end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate."
In earlier statements about Wright, Obama appeared to be walking a careful line, criticizing Wright's most inflammatory rhetoric but refusing to dissociate himself with a man who had been so close to his family. But after Wright's defiant performance Monday, in which he mocked his questioners and accused critics of attacking the black church in America, Obama was left with little choice but to denounce Wright more forcefully and make it clear that his relationship with the minister had fundamentally changed, or risk having his presidential campaign engulfed by the controversy.
Obama said yesterday that he was incensed that Wright had dismissed his earlier criticism as the actions of a typical politician. "What particularly angered me was his suggestion that my previous denunciation was somehow political posturing," he said, calling it "a show of disrespect for me."
Asked whether his relationship with Wright had been irreparably damaged, Obama responded, "There's been great damage. It may have been unintentional on his part. But I do not see that relationship being the same after that."
Obama faces a pivotal pair of primaries Tuesday in his campaign for the Democratic nomination against New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Indiana and North Carolina, and it remains to be seen how Wright's latest comments and Obama's response will be received by their intended audiences - including African-Americans who have been the Illinois senator's most fervent supporters and white working-class voters who have been far more reluctant to embrace him.
He also faces an endgame in the struggle for the nomination in which assessments of his strength as a general election candidate are likely to be crucial. The Clinton camp has sought to sow doubts about Obama's electability among the party leaders and elected officials who as superdelegates to the Democratic convention will hold the balance of power in determining a nominee.
Even before Wright's most recent comments, Republican opponents sensed that Obama's relationship with the clergyman had become a vulnerability. GOP groups in two Southern states recently began airing television commercials tying Obama and local Democratic candidates to video of inflammatory sermons given by Wright.
Obama's relationship with Wright first became an issue in the campaign in mid-March when a video of inflammatory sound bites from the minister's sermons circulated and were widely broadcast.
Obama responded by denouncing Wright's remarks but declining to disown the clergyman, whom he described at the time as "like family to me." He tamped down the uproar over Wright's comments with a sweeping speech on race relations that urged the country to address what Obama described as legitimate grievances that contribute to racial resentments among both blacks and whites.
Wright re-emerged on the public stage over the weekend with a series of appearances that culminated in his comments Monday morning, which provoked saturation coverage on cable news networks.
When Obama first addressed Wright's new comments, in an impromptu news conference on an airport tarmac late Monday afternoon, he offered a perfunctory response, saying that he was offended by the remarks but could not control a former pastor's public statements.
Obama's tone shifted drastically by early yesterday afternoon, when he called reporters traveling with him into a backstage room after a political rally and again addressed Wright's remarks.
The Illinois senator said he had not seen a video or transcript of Wright's remarks when he initially responded. His view changed after watching television coverage of Wright from his hotel room late in the evening, he said.
"What I had heard was that he had given a performance, and I thought at the time that it would be sufficient to reiterate what I had said in Philadelphia," Obama said, referring to the site of his speech on race relations.
Upon viewing television coverage of Wright's statements, Obama said, "What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that contradicts who I am and what I stand for."
Wright, who is retiring from Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side, officiated at Obama's wedding, baptized his children and prayed with the family moments before Obama announced his presidential candidacy.
Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.