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Washington diary: Pastor trouble

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Dear Obama supporters - look on the bright side!

Barack Obama
Mr Obama said Reverend Wright's comments were offensive

Gary Hart was sunk by Monkey Business.

Bill Clinton's candidacy was almost killed off by Gennifer Flowers and his presidency derailed by Monica Lewinsky.

Barack Obama's problem is not sexual infidelity, it is spiritual fidelity towards a nutty pastor - the Democratic Party has clearly evolved...

But then so has America.

Disastrous choice

In a country where the average citizen changes his or her religious denomination at least twice, your choice of pastor says perhaps even more about you than your choice of mistress.

And for an aspiring presidential candidate at a time when America is at war and when some people quibble about patriotic flag-pins, Obama seems to have chosen disastrously.

Watching Jeremiah Wright's cross between stand up comedy, loony lefty diatribe and hellfire sermon at the National Press Club in Washington DC had the same effect as witnessing one of those really embarrassing best man's speeches at a wedding.

It leaves the guests choking on their salmon, thinking: "... and this guy is your best friend?"

The pastor's first clips about Israel and 9/11 were the old wedding video.

Barack is trying to explain why he prayed with a pastor before he prayed against him

This week the performance was revived with fresh blood - Reverend Wright, the Remake, the Director's cut.

Instead he should have gone away to a spiritual retreat in Switzerland for a year.

But of course there is no way that the man who first coined the phrase "the audacity of hope" - which Barack Obama then borrowed for the title of his second bestselling book - would have done anything as un-audacious as slip away into obscurity while his friend soldiered towards the White House.

The reverend will not be silenced.

In fact, he is probably quite irked that his Chicago Church has become better known for the young "member", as he called Obama disparagingly on Monday, than for its founding father.

Even pastors can get jealous.

Poignant vision

Two months ago, Obama was able to rise above the fray elegantly.

He gave the man who married him to his wife Michelle and christened his two daughters the benefit of the doubt.

He described him as an eccentric, errant uncle with a loose tongue and a sound heart.

And he was able to used it as a peg to talk about his complex but poignant vision of race.

At that stage, Obama still walked on rhetorical water.

This week, he was drowning.

How ironic that the object of his fury should have been the erstwhile healer of his soul.

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Barack Obama hits back after controversial comments by his former pastor

He cut the reverend loose like one of those giant octopuses that have attached themselves to your leg and threaten to drag you under.

He called the comments the pastor made in Washington on Monday - to the effect that Obama was just another dishonest politician and that successive administrations were responsible for the spread of Aids - deeply misguided, damaging and offensive.

Most tellingly he said: "His comments have shown disrespect to me."

Respect, Obama! Everyone wants it and you, it turns out, demand it.

Brittle performance

Every campaign, however scripted, has its moments of unalloyed honesty when the candidate is stripped bare, when the veneer has gone and when all you see is raw Mensch.

That is what we got on Tuesday.

Barack Obama stopped sermonising, energising and eulogising.

Instead, he was fuming with anger.

You could almost see the steam seeping out of his tired eyes.

The public divorce from the reverend must have been painful, but it was unavoidable.

What should worry Obama supporters far more was the faltering, brittle performance in the press conference afterwards.

He stumbled, he stuttered, he stalled and he groped for the right words while Hillary was at an Indiana gas station doing shots of diesel with truck drivers.

Wielding her imaginary tankard of frothing beer, she talked about cutting the gas tax in front of a chorus of nodding white men with bulging necks.

Hang on - aren't they supposed to be the people who loathe Hillary?

But here too America is evolving.

The economy is hurting, Hillary is feeling your pain, her family name conjures up the comfortable 1990s and Barack is trying to explain why he prayed with a pastor before he prayed against him.

Indiana and North Carolina vote on Tuesday.

Barack Obama has six days left to find his old voice and reboot the magic or he will become the best nominee the Democrats never had.

And if the super-delegates freeze him out, I would not be surprised to see young people and African Americans - the voters Obama has managed to energise - stay away from the polls in droves.

This is the stuff of political tragedies.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday at 0030 BST on BBC News and at 0000 BST (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


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