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Why Rev. Wright Was Wrong for Oprah

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," May 5, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Tonight, we're only eight hours away from the polls opening in Indiana and North Carolina, and Senator Obama's former pastor, Reverend Wright, is still making headlines. We have new information tonight about why Oprah Winfrey left the controversial pastor's Chicago church. Senator Obama's former pastor's hateful comments started a firestorm after they made the rounds on TV and on the Internet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, FMR PASTOR, TRINITY UCC: 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 her citizens as less than human! God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Now, at first, Senator Obama denounced the comments but did not disown his former pastor. But then one week ago, Reverend Wright defended himself at the National Press Club.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WRIGHT: I said to Barack Obama last year, If you get elected, November the 5th, I'm coming after you because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people, all right? It's about policy, not the American people. And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about -- although it got edited -- I was talking -- you know, that's biblical. God doesn't bless everything. God condemns some things, and D-E-M-N, demn, is where we get the word "damn." God damns some practices.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: And the very next day, Senator Obama came out swinging.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday. You know, I have been a member of Trinity United Church of Christ since 1992. I've known Reverend Wright for almost 20 years. The person I saw yesterday was not the person that I met 20 years ago.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Oprah Winfrey was a member of Reverend Wright's church, but she chose to leave the church in the mid-1990s. Why? Allison Samuels, national correspondent for "Newsweek," has written an article about Oprah leaving Reverend Wright's church in this week's "Newsweek," and she joins us live.

Allison, take me back. When did Oprah join the church, and what happened?

ALLISON SAMUELS, "NEWSWEEK": She joined the church in 1984 and she was an actual member from 1984 to actually 1986. She continued to go sporadically until the mid-'90s, and then she sort of realized that the message that Reverend Wright was giving was just not the message that she wanted to sort of hear, not to mention that her listeners, actually, and her viewers, which tend to be very mainstream, would actually appreciate. So she actually just sort of cut off, like, around the mid-'90s.

VAN SUSTEREN: Was it for business purposes, or was it because she disagreed with it, if you know?

SAMUELS: I think it was a little bit of both. I think, obviously, she has a mainstream audience, and she wants to cater to them, obviously, and offending them certainly is not something that would be a good business practice. But also, I think she was leaning towards more a spirituality of just not any organized religion, not one organized religion, just the religion of people, of all people, that really encompassed all people. So I think it was a little bit of both.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, what you raise is sort of interesting. Senator Obama said that he never heard anything incendiary or upsetting. Oprah Winfrey did?

Watch Greta's interview with Newsweek's Allison Samuels

SAMUELS: Well, I think that, you know, it just depends. I mean, again, one person said in an article, which I think was very important to note, when Senator Obama joined the church, he was actually searching for his identity as an African-American and as an African-American male. And I think the African-American church, no matter who the pastor is, that is something that, you know, African-Americans bond together at church. And I think no matter what the message was, he was sort of bonding with the people in the church and some of the other people around. So I don't think it was necessarily the message that sort of drew him in, it was really the entire environment.

But with Oprah, having been -- you know, she was used to going to an African-American church, so I think that message sort of hit her a little bit harder because it's something she had heard all of her life.

VAN SUSTEREN: So are you saying that she didn't like the message, this sort of "God damn America," or the KKK, that was the message she didn't like, that drove her out of there, but Senator Obama, in looking for some identity, he sat there, and that was OK?

SAMUELS: Well, I'm not sure that Reverend Wright was saying those things at that particular time. I think, you know, there is a tradition in the African-American church where it does really talk about the racism that exists in America. That certainly has been always the case in the African- American church. So I think with Senator Obama, I think that that is something that he was not necessarily introduced to as a young man, so this would have been new to him. So I think it probably took time for him to form an idea about it, to form a decision on it.

Whereas with Oprah, I think, being a person who grew up in the black church, she didn't need that. She didn't need that sort of -- she didn't need that instruction manual from Reverend Wright to tell her about racism in America. I think for Obama, he did need that. He did need to sort of hear those words.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I don't mean to quibble with you, but it took 20 years until, you know, people started playing it on TV, for him to get the message. And Oprah, for whatever reason, got the message sooner on her own.

SAMUELS: Well, I mean, but -- I don't understand -- the difference to me is that one person was coming from a traditional African-American household, which is Oprah, who understood racism in America very fully. Obama was raised by his -- he says by his white grandparents. This was a whole new world to him. And I'm not sure that Reverend Wright was saying as extreme things as he ended up saying in those tapes that we've heard over the last couple of weeks. I'm not sure that that's what he was doing 20 years ago. I think it built up. But I think for Oprah, it didn't take much because this was something that she was accustomed to already. Obama had a totally different threshold for this.

VAN SUSTEREN: What's -- does Oprah Winfrey have any sort of relationship with the reverend now?

SAMUELS: No, I think they parted, you know, because Reverend Wright had some very unflattering words for her when she did leave the church, sort of indicating that she left because she had become a bigger star and that she didn't want to tithe, she didn't want to give money, very unpleasant things that he had to say about her. So I don't think they have any relationship at all now.

VAN SUSTEREN: So he got mad at her, like he got mad at Senator Obama, I guess, a little bit.

SAMUELS: Yes. I think that -- you know, unfortunately, I think he has somewhat of a vindictive spirit. And I think that, you know, for Obama, I don't know if he was able to recognize that. I think, as people, sometimes we're able to read people sooner than others are. And I think for Obama, he just did not pick up on some of those things, you know, as early as Oprah did. But again, coming from a totally different type of background, and I think that's very important to note.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I guess, except for the fact -- I don't mean to quibble with you, but not to be able to pick up on those, for lack of a better word, social cues about somebody might be important if you're dealing with other leaders in other countries. So that might be -- actually might be something that's, you know, relevant to people's decision-making.

SAMUELS: Well, I don't know if I think that now. Now he's older. He's 46 years old. Twenty years ago, he was 26. That's a huge difference in age. It's a huge difference in experience. It's a huge difference in thought. So I think you can't compare the man that he was 20 years ago to the man that he is now. I think he's learned a lot from this experience with Reverend Wright. I don't think he'll make that mistake again. I'm sure he won't.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Allison, thank you very much for joining us.

SAMUELS: Thank you.

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