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Susan Estrich: Who Needs Friends Like the Rev. Wright?

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Susan Estrich (Susan B. Landau)

"At a political event, he goes out as a politician and says what he has to say as a politician," Reverend Jeremiah Wright told Bill Moyers in their well-publicized interview last week. "I continue to be a pastor. He's a politician. I'm a pastor."

As my mother used to say, with friends like these....

If anyone thought that the Barack Obama campaign had any control over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the controversial former pastor and "uncle figure" whose fiery speeches reeking of anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment provided at least a jolt to the Obama campaign, the pastor has proven conclusively in his weekend burst of publicity that it just isn't so.

Just to remind you, in case there is anyone who has forgotten: Reverend Wright was for twenty years the pastor of the Obamas' church in Chicago. He married them. He baptized their children. He was widely known as a major figure in Chicago religious/political circles, much respected for his ministry and services to the poor and needy, but also viewed with great skepticism, if not worse, because of the tenor and tone of his speeches blaming America for 9/11 and Israel for the problems of the Middle East. Oprah, a former Church member and ardent Obama supporter, left the Church because of her disagreements with the Pastor. Obama, while making clear that he did not share Wright's views and leaving unclear just how familiar he was with some of them, declined to throw him overboard, as he did with others, like Harvard Professor Samantha Power, when her anti-Hillary comments conflicted with the message of his campaign. In Wright's case, he likened the pastor to an uncle who sometimes says things you disagree with, or even to his beloved but sometimes racially insensitive white grandmother, which — in many people's books — probably cost him votes among white grandmothers. Luckily for Obama, after an initial feeding frenzy in which Wright's anti-American sermon and the crowd's enthusiastic response was shown almost as many times as the beating of Rodney King, the frenzy seemed to die down. Certainly, a Democratic primary is not the place for this sort of attack. A general election, some Democrats have feared, is another thing.

But once the controversy died down, there was no question what Wright's next move should have been, at least if he was hoping to see Barack Obama win the nomination and be elected president. The best thing he could have done for his "friend" and former parishioner would have been to disappear to a desert island with no satellite service and contemplate spiritual issues. The second best might have been to endorse Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

About the worse thing he could do, particularly with North Carolina Republicans (shocking! Shocking!) — defying John McCain's expressed preference for a positive campaign and already running ads tying Wright to Obama (am I the only one who remembers that the first Willie Horton ads also came from North Carolina Republicans?) — is decide to raise his profile and defend his reputation, in the process denouncing or at least demeaning Senator Obama as a mere "politician" saying what he has to say.

A special interview with Bill Moyers? A major speech before the NAACP? How do you spell: let's see those clips about "GD America" all over again. Remind me again how the chickens came home to roost on 9/11, how it's all the white man's fault, and why Israel is to blame for all the violence in the Middle East.

And it gets worse.

If Barack Obama has tried to do one thing, it's to portray himself as something other than just another politician saying "what he has to say as a politician." If that's what your pastor thinks of you, why should we think otherwise?

What is Jeremiah Wright doing?

That's easy. He's helping himself. Trying to save his reputation. Smiling for the cameras.

What can Barack Obama do about it?

Not much.

The only thing worse than Wright speaking out is the respect with which he is treated when he does. In numerous reports, Wright is being described as one of the leading African-American pastors in the country. The fact of his invitation to speak to the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, whose previous speakers include such luminaries as Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, speaks volumes about the respect in which he is held, which is exactly what many white Americans, quite frankly, don't want to hear. They want to believe that Wright is an outlier, out of the mainstream, a temporary frolic and detour in Barack Obama's efforts to run a campaign and lead a life that transcends race.

So should Democrats wring their hands? Not necessarily.

Jeremiah Wright is not about to go away. If it weren't the North Carolina Republicans doing it now, it would be a 527 group or the Republican National Committee in the fall. The Jeremiah Wright issue was not about to go away: underground, for a while, but definitely not away. It would have come back. Better sooner than later.

Either Barack Obama will endure the latest onslaught or he won't. Either these North Carolina ads will hurt him or they won't. No one knows for sure. The one thing you should definitely not believe is any polls in which people say whether and how much this all bothers them. If there's one subject people lie to pollsters about, this is it.

But at the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, Reverend Wright's self-centered, me-first approach may in the end be good for Obama. He'll face the criticism now, not later. He may even be persuaded that far from acting like his uncle, much less his grandmother, the Reverend Wright is showing himself to be the narrow-minded, self-centered, selfish man that many people have been convinced was his true character since watching him denounce our country. And it may just give Obama the second chance he needs to throw him overboard which, figuratively speaking, is certainly where he belongs in the Obama campaign.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.