WASHINGTON -- Anger is a tough emotion to conceal and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's simmered barely beneath the surface during his Monday performance at the National Press Club.
Oh, he was funny and entertaining. He's got the gift of gab and knows how to bring an audience to its feet. "Amens" rolled easily off the tongues of his supporters.
But make no mistake: Barack Obama's "former pastor," by virtue only of Wright's recent retirement, is a righteously angry man. And he's mad principally at white folks -- descendants of slaveholders, authors of Jim Crow laws and alleged conspirators to genocide.
Whites, he made clear, brought damnation and terrorism to our shores.
Whatever Wright intended to accomplish during his media blitz these past few days -- including a speech to the NAACP and an interview with Bill Moyers -- he did little good for the Democrats' favored son. Sensing the potential damage to his campaign, Obama on Tuesday expressed outrage and sadness at Monday's "spectacle." Whether that's enough remains to be seen, but clearly, Wright changed few opinions about his now-famous sermon snippets.
Wright claimed that those excerpts were taken out of context and looped and re-looped by television news programs "to stoke fear," and, presumably, to turn white voters against Obama. He also claimed that the attacks against him were really aimed at the black church.
Those earlier sound bites were incendiary, all right. They captured Wright god-damning America and saying one week after the 9/11 attacks that America's "chickens are coming home to roost." But they were replayed so many times because they were so unbelievable and because they raised questions of consequence -- not about the institutional black church but about Wright, specifically, and his most-famous parishioner.
Could the pastor of a man hoping to become president really have said those things? And what would it mean for the nation and the world if America's highest officeholder had marinated for 20 years in that kind of thinking?
Among Wright's more controversial positions is his assertion that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus to kill blacks. That theory is embraced by 27 percent of blacks, according to a California State University study. Another 23 percent were undecided.
On Monday, Wright didn't alter his tune, but reiterated his belief in a government genocidal AIDS program. Citing the Tuskegee experiments, during which nearly 400 black men infected with syphilis were left untreated, Wright said the government is capable of anything.
Indeed, all governments are capable of anything, which is why America's was designed to permit dissent and reinvention through democratic elections. Nevertheless, there's just enough truth to Wright's remarks to create doubt in the minds of his parishioners and, apparently, among many in Monday's audience, including Princeton professor Cornel West, who nodded and whistled in affirmation.
Tuskegee, like slavery, happened. But if Wright really believed that the U.S. government were conducting genocide against blacks, wouldn't he have taken that message beyond the pews of his church?
And wouldn't millions of Americans of all races and creeds join Wright in solidarity against such a government?
In fairness to Wright, his sermons and his body of work are greater than the words that have made him famous. His church has done much good, feeding the hungry, helping the destitute, encouraging youth and families. Wright is also a Marine veteran, which he noted as a measure of his patriotism in mocking contrast to Dick Cheney's five military deferments.
But there's something else about Wright, whose attraction to fame is aggravating Obama's current difficulties. As Wright made clear Monday, he enjoys an audience and is a man practiced in the arts of emotion. He's been stoking the fears and anger of his own flock for 36 years. He once notably brought a confused young man to Christ and gave him the words that became the title of the young man's best-seller -- "The Audacity of Hope."
Now that same young man is running for president of the United States of G.D. America. Is it possible that Wright, privately or unconsciously, doesn't really want Obama to win?
It can't be easy even for a man of God to sit in the bleachers and watch his protege hailed as the new messiah. Given Wright's attraction to center stage -- and his own book due out this fall -- the only mystery is why he waited so long to speak up.
When a reporter asked that question Monday, Wright responded by paraphrasing Proverbs: Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and confirm the suspicion.
Too bad he didn't stick to that advice.