Do the Wright Thing

Barack Obama has been trying to keep the Rev. Jeremiah Wright out of the spotlight for a long time now. As far back as February 2007, he rescinded an invitation for Wright to deliver the invocation at his presidential announcement.

But now Wright is pushing back, closing his media tour today with a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Needless to say, this isn’t exactly the Obama campaign’s dream. From their perspective, any attention on Wright is bad. Obama has been struggling to win over working-class white voters—the last thing he needs is a media-driven refresher on his greatest liability. And indeed, Wright’s comeback may hurt Obama. But in the long run, it’s likely to help the candidate more than hurt him. Here’s how:

The YouTube ratio. Right now, Wright is defined as that guy you saw in that YouTube clip or looped on MSNBC. Naturally, it’s always his most heated remarks that get repeated. The more people see Wright in other contexts— on Bill Moyers , at the NAACP, at a conference of ministers—the less they’ll associate him with those initial images. It doesn’t hurt that when he tries, Wright can be charm itself.

Distance helps. In his interview with Moyers, Wright argued that Obama has to say certain things because he’s a politician. On the one hand, that argument makes the senator sound dishonest. But it also highlights that Obama and Wright are in different lines of work. As Wright said today, after Nov. 5, he’ll still be a pastor.  He also challenged the idea that he’s Obama’s “spiritual mentor”—he uttered the phrase in a mockingly overdramatic voice. Rather, he said Obama is one of his members. That’s it. The more he distances himself from Obama, the more voters can see them as separate people with separate views.

The comeback kid. Wright may not be a politician, but he has a politician’s quickness—a quality that makes him remarkably entertaining to watch. When he was asked at today’s event how he feels about being an American, he diffused notions that he’s unpatriotic: “I served six years in the military,” he said. “How many years did Cheney serve?” When the moderator asked him to respond to Chris Rock’s joke that Wright is a “75-year-old black man who doesn’t like white people—is there any other kind of 75-year-old black man?” Wright had the perfect retort: “That’s just like the media. I’m not 75.” (He’s 66.) It’s moments like these that could right Wright.

Changing the subject. Just as Obama turned the conversation away from Wright’s words with his race speech, Wright today tried to refocus the attacks on him as “attacks on the black church.” He discussed the evolution of black Christianity from the brush harbors where slaves convened to worship out of slaveholders’ sight through to the liberation theology of the 1960s. He reframed his own famous remarks as part of this tradition: “It is not bombastic, it is not controversial. It is just different.” This argument doesn’t excuse his most questionable comments—like, say, his claim that the AIDS virus was some government plot (which he utterly failed to address when asked about it at today’s NPC event)—but it does explain the tradition from which he descends.

Better now than in October. The furor over Wright so far is nothing compared with what Republicans will drum up in the fall. John McCain announced yesterday that despite hinting that he’d leave the Wright issue alone—he asked the North Carolina GOP not to air an ad denouncing Obama and Wright—he now thinks Wright is fair game. So much for the civility race . Given that, it’s better for Wright to fight back and soften his image now than to allow his current image to calcify over the next six months. If he can go from Obama’s crazy minister to Obama’s controversial but thoughtful and witty minister, that will be a huge step in pre-empting the GOP onslaught.