Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "That is just terrible, absolutely dreadful," a prominent supporter of Barack Obama said Monday morning after listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's screed at the National Press Club. He proposed that the presidential candidate at long last must denounce his pastor, unequivocally and immediately. It took 28 hours after a tepid early reaction Monday, but Obama finally did it Tuesday afternoon.

Did that solve Obama's pastor problem? Leading Democrats certainly hope so, but they are not sure. His vulnerability transcends relations with a radical preacher. If Obama is seen as not just a presidential candidate who happens to be black but as the black candidate in the mold of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, he faces a difficult struggle in the general election against John McCain even if he bests Hillary Clinton for the nomination.

The problem goes back to the reaction crafted by Obama and his strategist David Axelrod about two months ago, when videos of Wright's racist sermons were circulated. While insisting that Wright's incendiary remarks were taken out of context, Obama took the high road by delivering a widely praised speech on race in Philadelphia March 18. The issue surfaced again, however, at the widely criticized Obama-Clinton debate April 16, leading Obama to rule out further debates with Clinton. The Obama campaign thought the pastor problem had been put to bed until Wright went on his little road tour.

Obama's danger is being perceived by white voters as representing a hostile separate culture. My friend, the African-American conservative Armstrong Williams, told me, "It is not unusual to hear in many black churches the same language that Rev. Wright is being criticized for." I raised this with NPR reporter-Fox commentator Juan Williams (also black, but no relation to Armstrong). "Not at all," he replied. "It's ridiculous. I never have heard that in church."

Wright's demagoguery is so unique in Juan Williams' view that it was necessary for Obama to separate himself from it two months ago. Instead of orating about race in America, Williams says, Obama should have repented as a "sinner" partaking of lies from the pulpit. It amounted to a post-partisan, post-racial moment lost by the candidate.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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