Rev. Wright Revs Up Press Club Crowd

Posted April 28, 2008 at 6:33pm

The grand ballroom of the National Press Club took on the energy of a Sunday church service instead of a Monday breakfast meeting as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright led a crowd of about 200 in a speech laced with Bible passages and proverbs and more than a few pokes at the Washington press corps.

“Why am I speaking out now?” Wright asked, posing the question on every media member’s mind. “If you think I’m going to let you talk about my mama and her religious tradition, and my daddy and his religious tradition and my grandma, you got another thing coming.”

Wright, a former Chicago pastor whose most famous former Chicago congregant was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), kicked off a two-day symposium hosted by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an interfaith organization that has held similar Washington retreats for the past three years, though none has attracted a fraction of the media attention.

“We had our lunch in a smaller room the last time,” said the Rev. Cynthia Hale, a member of the conference’s board of trustees and a pastor at the Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga. “I don’t think there was one member of the media there.”

Perhaps the media, well over 100-strong at this year’s event, were making up for lost time. Dozens of camera crews lined the back of the press club’s grand ballroom. A swarm of photographers strained for a shot of Wright as he ate a plate of eggs and sausage before delivering a speech of red meat.

“Maybe now, an honest dialogue about race in this country will begin, a dialogue which was commendably called for by Sen. Obama,” Wright said, leading the crowd through a rising speech that at many points was interrupted by cheers and amens.

While Wright led the breakfast-goers in a soulful sermon, he also used his time to speak directly to members of the Washington press corps who have not made it to the Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side, where he preached for 36 years.

“Black worship [is] not deficient. It is just different. It is not bombastic, it is not controversial, it is just different,” Wright said, taking his eyes off the teleprompters at his podium and toward the back of the room where the two dozen media cameras stood.

The crowd applauded Wright throughout his 30-minute speech, but the cheers turned to groans during the question-and-answer session, when the Chicagoan was asked about his relationship with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the controversial passages from his oft-quoted sermons following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He defended his patriotism by noting, “I served six years in the military. Does that make me unpatriotic? How many years did [Vice President] Cheney serve?”

Wright delivered a similar speech Sunday night to the NAACP in Detroit, and his multi-city speaking tour comes as Obama is courting blue-collar swing voters as part of a 50-state outreach effort that is most aggressively focusing on Indiana and North Carolina, crucial Democratic primaries on May 6.

“All the right questions were asked,” the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy of the Interfaith Alliance said after Wright’s speech. “What’s clear is you cannot confuse religion and politics without doing a great disservice to both.”

Obama has been trying to separate the two for months and ease voters’ concerns about his pastor’s remarks, which have been questioned by the national media and condemned by opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Wright seemed less concerned Monday, saying, “Whether [Obama] gets elected or not, I’ll still be a pastor on Nov. 5 and Jan. 21,” adding — in a vote of confidence for the Illinois Senator — “I am open to being vice president.”