In his first interview since the nefarious clips of him saying “God damn America” first started to dog Barack Obama’s campaign, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was unapologetic. He was confident and sure of himself. He even several times used the word “cling.”
But there was one thing missing from Wright in his hour-long conversation with Bill Moyers on “Bill Moyers’ America”: Anger.
Far from the portrayals of him as an angry black man from the 1950s and 60s, prone to paranoia and, as Maureen Dowd termed it, “wackadoodle” views, Wright was cool and collected. He seemed as eager to talk religious philosophy and community organizing techniques as he was to explain what he meant in his controversial sermons, still played over and over in twisted loops.
“The persons who have heard the entire sermon understand the communication perfectly,” he told Moyers. “What is not the failure to communicate is when something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public. That’s not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a “wack-a-doodle.” ”
The spin is that Wright is hardly doing Obama any favors by re-emerging, particularly when he tells Moyers that the candidate “says what he has to say as a politician.” And Wright’s defense of Louis Farrakhan, who made anti-Semitic statements that obscure his good works, will not go far in diffusing criticism.
But it’s hard to think of a better place for Wright to choose his comeback. In Moyers, he not only had a fellow member of his denomination, but someone Wright met once before in the 1960s when he was in the military and assigned to care for President Johnson during his heart surgery. Moyers is perhaps the only personality left who can really pull off an intellectual discussion of race and religion, and in this interview Moyers performed the same task that Jon Stewart does most nights, although by different means. He elicited so much insight from Wright that you couldn’t help but laugh at the contrast to the shout-fest spotlight that has so far ruled the show.
It’s easy to see where Wright was on the defensive. He suggested that his words were being put on display “for some very devious reasons,” but his demeanor was relaxed and restrained, even if his words don’t reflect that.
“It says to me that corporate media and miseducation or misinformation or disinformation, I think we started calling it during the Nixon years, still reigns supreme. Thirty some percent of Americans still think there are weapons of mass destruction. That you tell a lie long enough that people start believing it. What does the media do? “Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein Obama! Barack Hussein. It sounds like Osama, Obama. That Arabic is a language. So that’s why many people still think he’s a Muslim. He went to a madrasah. What’s a madrasah? I don’t know, but I know it was one of those Muslim schools that teaches terrorism. The kind of I don’t want to think, just tell me what to think mentality is why so many Americans still think that.”
It’s doubtful that much will be made of the Moyers interview, save for Obama supporters, members of the “elite” that support public television and assorted political junkies that watch it on YouTube, which is in the ironic position of ruining reasoned political discourse while at the same time saving it.
More than likely, more attention will be paid to Wright’s Monday appearance at the National Press Club, where he will face a different and perhaps less friendly audience, than to the Moyers interview. The Obama campaign may wish he would just stay silent. But in what may be an emerging, Internet-driven battle of news clips vs. context, Wright may present yet another challenge to the basic political assumptions of the media environment.