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Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson on the Jeremiah Wright sermon clips.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

HH: Joined now by Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson, long time assistant to the President, chief speech writer. We go from Joel Kaplan to Michael Gerson. Michael, welcome, it’s always good to talk to you.

MG: Yeah, great to be with you again.

HH: Author of Heroic Conservatism and a column. Michael, obviously, the big, gigantic story of the day is the release of sermon clips by Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s pastor at Trinity Church in Chicago. Have you had a chance to hear him yet?

MG: I did. I saw some on the web.

HH: I’d like to play a few and get your reactions as we go through them for the benefit of our audience, given…again, you’re a Wheaton grad, you’re an Evangelical, and you know your religious history, correct?

MG: Yup. I hope so.

HH: All right, clip number one:

JW: The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three strike law, and then wants us to sing 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.

HH: What do you make of that, Michael Gerson?

MG: Well, you immediately think of the contrast to someone like Martin Luther King, who used those same kind of cadences of African-American rhetoric, which are wonderful, to unite the country and to call attention to America’s founding ideals as ideals for everybody. And that’s not clearly what he’s doing.

HH: Cut number two:

JW: We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye. We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians, and black South Africans. And now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back into our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.

HH: Michael Gerson, that is in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s a 2003 sermon, I believe. Your reaction?

MG: Well, you know, we saw some of that, actually, on the right, you’ll remember.

HH: Yes.

MG: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson talking about how this was, 9/11 was punishment for our sins. This was a far left version of the same, I think, illegitimate narrative. And I think it’s conspiratorial, I think it’s historical revisionism, and I think it’s deeply disturbing, and raises some questions that eventually, I think, Barack Obama is going to have to answer. And now he’s made clear that he doesn’t agree with him on everything, but I think it’s a legitimate issue.

HH: What about…I guess we have to talk about what the role of a pastor is in someone’s life.

MG: Right.

HH: If it’s a serious Church membership you’re talking about here. This isn’t a one-off. It’s not like showing up with John Hagee or some other pastor with whom you share a stage for a day and you don’t necessarily adopt anything. If you’re someone’s, a part of someone’s congregation, do you have to accept some sort of responsibility for what that pastor says from the pulpit?

MG: Well, I’m not sure. I’m not sure you accept responsibility, but you certainly have to recognize that this is an important influence on someone’s life. That’s true of any Church. And it’s true of any institution that you’re intimately involved with, and so it’s legitimate to ask what his own views on a variety of these things are, and let him speak for himself.

HH: What kind of level of detail ought Barack Obama to be expecting to come forward with? I think he ought to answer each and every one of these clips, and respond in detail to them. What do you think, Michael Gerson?

MG: Well, I think he’ll want, as a politician, to generally say well, you know, I don’t agree with everything he says, kind of argument, and he’s said that before. But I do think it’s legitimate on a variety of these topics to ask, this is an argument that’s being made by his pastor, that the United States is really a force for evil in the world. That’s the argument, that we are oppressors, that we exploit others, and you know, I think it’s worth asking how he views those kind of convictions.

HH: Michael Gerson, anyone who’s been around American politics the last thirty years, like you have, like I have, know that when candidates go into the public square, they are immediately asked what clubs to which do they belong?

MG: Uh-huh. Right.

HH: And if they belong to an exclusive golf club that doesn’t admit women or minorities, they have to get out or the club has to change, because the worst part of that club is attributed to them, not the best part, they don’t get to say I don’t agree with that, I wish I could have women in or black in or minorities in. They don’t get to do that. What’s the difference between a Church and a golf club?

MG: Well, I think it’s a pretty fair analogy, that you are to some extent judged by the institutions that you associate with. And that’s true if they’re social institutions or they’re religious institutions. But I do think it’s fair, in a circumstance like that, to try to take a Church like that as the whole instead of just the worst excesses. And I’m not sure I know enough about the denomination, about the pastor himself to kind of judge it that strongly at this point.

HH: Let’s listen to another clip of Jeremiah Wright:

JW: …and cares what I’m going through, who cares about what poor people have to put up with, who cares about what a poor, black man has to face every day in a country and a culture controlled by rich, white people. Somebody missed that. You got nervous, because we’ve got some white members here. I’m still in Bible country. I’m still in the text. Jesus was a poor, black man who lived in a country, and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich, white people. The Romans were rich, the Romans were Italians, which means they were European, which means they were white, and the Romans ran everything in Jesus’ country.

HH: One more. Jeremiah Wright, one more:

JW: It just came to me within the past few week, y’all, why so many folk are hatin’ on Barack Obama. He doesn’t fit the model – he ain’t white, he ain’t rich, and he ain’t privileged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold. Giuliani fits the mold. Rich, white men fit the mold. Hillary never had a cab whiz past her and not pick her up, because her skin was the wrong color. Hillary never had to worry about being pulled over in her car as a black man driving in the wrong…I am sick of Negroes who just do not get it. Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single parent home. Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich, white people.

HH: Okay, Michael Gerson, a minute left. This is significant stuff, isn’t it?

MG: It is. I mean, that’s a terrible exaggeration, but it does point out the reason that a lot of African-Americans identify with Barack Obama, because he comes from, you know, a different background than some other leaders. And so, you know, I guess my only response to that would be that that is part of his appeal in the African-American community.

HH: Michael Gerson, do you think this issue’s going to go away anytime soon?

MG: No, I don’t. I think it’s serious.

HH: I think it is a big issue as well. Michael Gerson from the Washington Post, Council On Foreign Relations, author of Heroic Conservatism, always a pleasure, talk to you again soon.

End of interview.

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