The episode nearly ended Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008.
But in his new book, former Obama aide David Axelrod says he thinks the media firestorm over anti-American and racial comments made by Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright actually helped Obama in the long run.
“Our opponents had hoped the Wright tapes would tear him down and destroy his candidacy,” Axelrod writes in Believer: My Forty Years In Politics. “Instead, he had never looked more presidential.”
Axelrod, who guided Obama’s Senate and White House campaign victories, spends pages in his new memoir discussing the issue of Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign.
He recalls how it all began, early in the campaign, when a Rolling Stone reporter wrote a cover story of Obama titled “The Radical Roots of Barack Obama.” The reporter spent time listening to Wright’s sermons at Trinity United Church.
In that story, Wright was quoted saying “racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run.” Wright also said the country believes in “white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God.”
Axelrod recalls how the campaign, after that story, tried to distance Wright from the campaign. The pastor had actually been set to give the invocation at Obama’s campaign announcement, but those plans changed.
“Well, we can’t afford to let this story hijack the day,” Obama said of Wright, according to Axelrod, after the Rolling Stone story.
Wright ended up leading a private prayer for Obama’s family before the announcement. But Axelrod says he could feel the tension between him and Wright that day.
“I stood against a wall, and caught Wright’s withering glare as he walked by,” Axelrod writes. ‘In his mind, I sensed, I was the political hack who had driven a wedge between the reverend and his most celebrated parishioner.”
After ABC’s Brian Ross later aired footage from Wright’s sermons, Axelord called it “a missile directed right at the heart of our campaign.”
In one of the most infamous clips aired by Ross, Wright said: “God Bless America? No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America — that’s in the Bible — for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God damn America.”
“It was sharp, provocative language of the sort that might be heard from pulpits of many black churches,” Axelrod wrote. “Yet this wasn’t just any church or pastor. It was Obama’s church and the pastor whom he had portrayed as a central influence in his life.”
Axelrod says that while he initially thought an opposing campaign gave the footage of Wright’s speeches to ABC, he later learned that Ross obtained it from the church’s gift shop.
The former Obama aide recalls being blindsided by the videos and being upset that the campaign had not already known about them.
“If we had known about these jeremiads, we certainly would have encouraged the church to remove the tapes from their gift shop,” Axelrod wrote.
After Obama, trying to do damage control, delivered a speech about race that distanced himself from Wright, Axelrod said “many of the reporters who had come expecting to bury Obama” had “recognized that something extraordinary had happened.”
“By taking on the explosive issue of race so directly and personally, Barack had transformed his own political crisis into an occasion for national reflection,” the aide writes. “The world, and even those of us closest to him, got new insight into how he would deal with the crushing pressures and complex challenges of the presidency.”