April 13th, 2008
08:54 AM ET

Lanny Davis: Civil Dialogue on the Issue of Reverend Wright

Barack Obama

On April 9, 2008,  I had an op-ed column published in the Wall Street Journal that respectfully raised questions about Senator Obama's response to some of Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons and urged the Senator to address (or re-address) these questions now rather than later.

The op-ed was also re-published here on the AC360 Blog, TheHill.com (the original host of my "Pundits Blog" commentaries), the Huffington Post.com,  and elsewhere.

It drew a considerable reaction, pro and con, sent to me by e-mail or posted as comments on these and other web sites.

One e-mail sent to me moved me the most, giving me a better understanding of Senator Obama's reaction to Rev. Wright's sermons.  While not answering all my concerns, it still opened my mind and heart much more than before.

It came from a highly respected attorney from New York City, Mr. Jeh Johnson, who happens to be an African-American.  Jeh is a strong and steadfast supporter of Senator Obama. I have known of and admired Jeh from afar for many years. He also admires Senator and President Clinton and served with me in the Clinton Administration.

After reading Jeh's e-mail, I responded and thanked him for sending it to me. I then asked him if I could re-publish it on the blog sites that published my op-ed piece, and he consented.

Please see below and take the time to read it carefully.

My simple reasons for wanting to publish Jeh's e-mail are:

First,  while I am still a strong supporter of Senator Clinton, I hope that others like myself, who consider themselves to be loyal, progressive Democrats but still have some concerns about the Rev. Wright issue, will read Jeh's comments and gain a better understanding, as I did,  of Senator Obama and his speech about Rev. Wright's sermons.

Second, I hope that, by reading Jeh's comments, thoughtful supporters of both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton will realize that continuing this type of respectful and civil dialogue helps, not hurts, the Democratic Party's chances in November.

Finally, I want to contrast Jeh's approach to the ugly haters and name-callers I also heard from in response to my op-ed piece.

Senators Clinton, Obama, and McCain, unfortunately know about these kinds of critics – who demonize those with whom they politically disagree; who rant and name-call on daily radio talk shows and nightly cable TV programs; and who fill the blogosphere with personal attacks and character assassination, usually under a cloak of anonymity that precludes accountabilty.

The Jeh Johnson approach of civil and informative discourse, even where there is disagreement, should appeal to everyone – regardless of candidate or party preference – as the best antidote to these practitioners of the politics of personal destruction. Mr. Johnson proves we can vigorously debate and disagree on the issues – and yet, after the nominating process is completed and the next president is elected, we can still work together as a nation to get back into the solutions business.

– Lanny J. Davis, former Clinton Lawyer

Message from Jeh Johnson:


I write this for myself, and not as a representative of Barack Obama or his campaign.  I was prompted to write you when I saw your question "Why did he stay a member of that congregation?" 

I think much of the debate over Rev. Wright and his statements overlooks the unique role of the black church in the black community. I've never been to Trinity in Chicago, but I've been to many churches like Trinity.  Historically, the black church is the one place for blacks free of any white influence, something blacks can call all their own. It's the fraternity, the funeral director, the marriage counselor, the lawyer, the tax preparer, the therapist, the AA anonymous. Black churches such as Trinity are often the center of the black community, the one place where people of different economic classes come together to see each other, worship God, engage in community service and outreach, and it is about much more than the pastor.

I am not biracial and I did not grow up in Hawaii. I did grow up in an overwhelmingly white community, and was constantly plagued by my minority status. I had no place to turn to find my own identity. My parents then had the wisdom and good sense to send me to Dr. King's alma mater, Morehouse College in southwest Atlanta, the only all-male black college left in the country, and that four-year experience basically made me who I am today.

While there, I started attending the Baptist church across the street (though I am an Episcopalian). It was a real, down-home black church. My very first reaction to it was shock and slight amusement.  The pastor was often over the top in his sermons, and he drove a Mercedes despite his poor congregation. I would listen to the good Rev. and often disagreed with much of his overheated rhetoric, but I kept going back to this church.  

Why did I do that? For the first time in my life I felt like a full participant in the black experience, with no conditions. No one questioned who I was, where I came from, what I had done before to prove my blackness. There was just an elderly lady with a big smile at the door who handed me a program and said "God bless you son."

While there I witnessed poor and uneducated black people shake off misery, poverty, addiction, alcoholism, death, sickness, relatives in jail and all the other stuff that makes life challenging in the big city. Women in white uniforms walked the aisle to catch people as they passed out from it all.  During the service, a deacon or someone else would describe all the different church-related activities for outreach, helping someone who had lost a job, or visiting the sick and shut-in who could not make it to church.

On the way out, someone else would say "come back again and see us young man" though they didn't know me at all. By attending that church, I felt part of the community around me, and it was quite uplifting on Sunday after I went back to the books. Barack has never explained it this way, but I suspect given the way he was raised he felt some of the same things when he first started attending Trinity, and why he found a home there.

In the course of my own life, I have encountered many very militant and angry elements of the black community, much of them as formative for me as the large corporate law firm in which I am now a partner, the Clinton Administration, or growing up in Wappingers Falls, New York. But, it would be an act of sheer hypocrisy for me to try to renounce any of this. For example, at Morehouse many educated teachers and invited speakers blasted the white man, black men who acted like the white man, and condemned our whole society as fatally racist.

When I graduated in 1979, Louis Farrakhan was our baccalaureate speaker and Joshua Nkomo, leader of the armed struggle to liberate Zimbabwe, was our commencement speaker. With Coretta Scott King sitting near the front row, I vividly recall Nkomo preaching "the only thing the white man understands is the barrel of a gun." I certainly didn't agree with that then, and I don't now. But I love Morehouse and would rather quit all involvement in public affairs before I had to sever my ties of support to the school.  Morehouse is part of what makes me a proud African-American.

A good friend to me from my parent's generation, a retired ivy-league professor who is like an uncle to me, was branded a dangerous radical and subversive by our government in the 1960s. J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped his conversations with Dr. King. But, if someone combed his books and found something he wrote with which I disagreed, I'd rather disassociate myself from my right arm than publicly renounce this man.

The reality is this: Those of us who participate in both the white and African-American experiences will very likely have a Jeremiah Wright in our lives – it could be our teacher, our uncle, our brother, our father, or our pastor. It is simply part of the American experience.

But, here I am, a patriot who – I can honestly say – harbors no "anger" or racial animosity toward anybody, including my white law partners, my white neighbors, or my white family members. I can't guarantee much about anything in life, but I can guarantee, from what I know about Barack Obama, that he feels the same in his heart and soul.

– E-mail from Jeh Johnson, a lawyer and Obama supporter, sent to Lanny Davis

Lanny J. Davis, a Washington attorney, is a supporter of Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. 

Filed under: Barack Obama • Hillary Clinton • Raw Politics
soundoff (90 Responses)
  1. Jackie

    I have been upset with Lanny Davis during this primary season for attacks on Barack Obama that I felt were untrue and unfair.

    What Lanny did with this email was gracious. I thank him for that.

    I wish this whole process could be raised to a higher level.

    April 15, 2008 at 7:03 pm |
  2. AL of Texas

    Thank you Anderson. I am an AA female who literally grew up in the black church.If you really think about it, all we have had as a people is the beauty shop, barber shop, funeral home and the church. I have been heartbroken at the way th media has described the black church. Thank you Mr Johnson for your thoughtful response to Mr Davis's op-ed.I thank him for stepping up to the plate and acknowledging his enlightment. I in no way blame Mr Obama for not leaving Trinity just as I will not leave my church even with its flaws.The church is not the pastor but the people who make up the congregati . Again, thank you Anderson.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:50 pm |
  3. Tony

    Reverend Wright does not preach Black Liberation Theology at TUCC. To quote Father Pfleger, a white Catholic priest, "He preaches the same gospel that I preach- the gospel of Jesus Christ."

    April 15, 2008 at 11:20 am |
  4. Kim

    Thank you, Lanny, for posting this! What a very insightful reaction to your article, it was a pleasure and an enlightenment reading it…

    April 15, 2008 at 7:23 am |
  5. Bob Whiteman

    I think it's good that people discuss things but -Duh Lanny! How did you live so long and never meet any black people? I mean seriously, you never knew or at least thought about the feelings expressed in Mr. Johnson's letter.Either that or your just another Clinton campaign worker trying to bolster the support Hillary enjoys with racis er' I mean people who will never vote for a Black person.Get real.

    April 15, 2008 at 2:33 am |
  6. Celia McKoy

    I appreciate Mr. Johnson's comments but I believe Mr. Obama had already articulated much of this in his speech. My question to Mr. Davis is why does he, and so many others in White America, need Black people to constantly explain and justify themselves. Why could you not have accepted Mr. Obama's comments after the whole Rev. Wright affair? Better yet, why couldn't you just try to LISTEN to Rev. Wright himself and get where he is coming from?

    Suddenly the light bulb has gone off in your head and you now get it? Well I suppose it's better late than never.

    April 14, 2008 at 5:25 pm |
  7. Debi

    Wow – an excellent presentation, Mr. Johnson, that really makes sense to me. My first reaction to Pastor Wright's comments was horror. Then I thought about WHY he was so angry. Here's what I came up with: I've blown up with anger and absolute disgust when someone I care deeply about betrays and abuses the morals and values and behavior that we've always shared. A stranger, who hadn't admired that person in the first place, couldn't care less. If Pastor Wright didn't care so much and expect so much from his country, he wouldn't be so violently angered by it's failures. Hopefully, he and others,who speak in public, can learn from Senator Obama that there is truly strength in speaking softly. God bless us all.

    April 14, 2008 at 1:32 pm |
  8. Warren Chopp

    I wish CNN would get to the issues instead of religion weather it be Obama or Clinton.. Lets get back to the basics of a real campaign.

    April 13, 2008 at 8:21 pm |
  9. Aware

    I live in Hawaii where mixed race is the norm and caucasians are in the minority. Obama would have fit in here much better than his white grandparents. Locals and those with a Hawaiian roots (even a small percentage) can be bitter and frustrated, to use Obama's latest words, with caucasians. This would be part of Obama's formation.

    But, Obama became a child of priviledge who went to the best schools and nurtured his ego and his dreams of power. When he decided to pursue office/politics he needed to find a church to complete his image. Unfortunately, he chose Trinity and Jeremiah Wright. JW fosters a spirit of anger, bitterness and frustration with the white race. This was another part of Obama's formation.

    Obama's latest comments in San Francisco demonstrate what has become a part of him over the years. It obviousley surfaces without premeditation.

    Obama is conflicted and needs to heal before he heads for the White House.

    Hillary or Mccain 08! 🙂

    April 13, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  10. Cliff

    Lanny, Thanks for allowing this gentleman's post to become part of your blog.

    As white Americans, we have no understanding of this part of American culture. Thanks to the Obama campaign, many of us are listening and understanding for the first time.

    April 13, 2008 at 8:00 pm |
  11. Kwaku Azar

    Pure nonsense. Was this not the same Lanny Davis who told us that it was ok for Bill Clinton to have sex with his intern in the White House?

    The Clinton campaign is full of hypocrites and that is why they are losing. They have completely misconstrued americans reaction to the Lewinsky scandal as though we are gullible.

    April 13, 2008 at 7:55 pm |
  12. LPeterson

    As a white male northerner that went to school in the south during the late 50s, I witnessed with cultural shock segregated buses, lunchrooms, movie houses, bathrooms, etc. and "whites only" water fountains and help wanted signs . I can understand how Dr. Wright could harbor some bitterness which is expressed from time to time. If Mr. Johnson's letter opened the eyes of Mr. Davis and others and softened their elitism because they "never walked in the shoes" of a Dr. Wright, it served a valuable end.

    April 13, 2008 at 7:49 pm |
  13. aurelia

    Interesting insight. Thank you.

    April 13, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  14. B. Churchill

    Can't we please, please, please have more thoughtful insight and dialogue like this on who we are as a people in this precarious moment, and how we might yet achieve the noble aspirations we long to embody as inheritors of American ideals and citizenship? Can't we please do better by being better? If we can't do it, you and I, who ever can? If not now, when?

    April 13, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  15. Scott Lindquist

    I totally agree, even though I'm a white man and have never attended a black church for more than one or two services. My wife is a Unity minister and I have learned much from her about compassion and forgiveness. We are living in a time where we pound out chests and scream about being "Christians" but have totally ignored what He tried to teach us. In our rush to jump on the next bandwagon like "What would Jesus Do?", we forget his message. He never discarded anyone for what they said or did. He would correct them in their anger and speak to them of forgiveness, but he would never cast them out, as so many "religious zealots" are screaming. Barack Obama is a good and decent man who calls us to the better angels of our nature. I pray we have the courage to understand what he's trying to teach us, or will we do what we did to Jesus, destroy him because we can't stand the message of truth.

    April 13, 2008 at 7:31 pm |
  16. TN Dave

    Thank Lanny for the words of Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson just explained to you the Black Experience and I hope you stop your crusade against Rev. Wright and Sen. Obama. Please take this to your friends on Fox News, Sean Hannity, and Bill O'Rielly. It is time for this country to move beyond all this racial hatred and it can start with you putting this to rest and seeking an open dialog about race and it's affects on america in the 21st century.

    Note: I know you are aware of the death threats to Rev. Wright and his Trinity family, this needs to stop or their injuries or death will be on yours and your friends Sean, Bill, and Karl Rove and the likes hands.

    April 13, 2008 at 7:27 pm |
  17. Sam Johnson

    Great blog!!

    April 13, 2008 at 7:25 pm |
  18. C.J.

    Lanny Davis you are so irrelivant it isnt even funny. by the way get a life.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:58 pm |
  19. Richard Taylor

    Thank God that there is someone with enough clairity and ability to reach out to you Mr. Davis. Hopefully be able to get you or maybe anyone else to understand what its like to be in or at Church and get the WORD, but have enough sense to know what makes COMMON sense and weed out the rhetoric that's not condusive to what we need in our society to become one as a community.

    There needs to be a lot less of POLITICS on this issue and more of an understanding of what its like for people who are not like you or from where you come from to deal with the everyday life that we go through. I make no excuses for Rev.Wright or any one that would say something that's not positive, but I know that this has and will happen throughout our life here on earth, We need to deal with this kind of thing in a meaningful way instead of parsing words for political gain and divisivness to get elected to the Presidency.

    Why should it be that one group of people has a RIGHT to feel that their way is RIGHT and everyone else should just deal with how that group feels things should be. I think that's why we became a Country in the beginning, To be able to freely express how WE feel and not be ridiculed and taken to task.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:53 pm |
  20. jim in pennsylvania

    Excellent– i am a white man who seldom cries- i cried when i read this excellent article.............
    A Pennsylvania rural American so called as the Clinton and McCain campaign would call a average middle class voter

    April 13, 2008 at 6:52 pm |
  21. kathryn

    Thank you, Lanny, for posting this. I was totally angered by your first post, and was ready to rip into this second one, when I stopped to actually read what you, and Jeh Johnson, wrote. If we could all have the kind of open mind and dialog that you yourself have demonstrated here, we would all be better off, and could, perhaps, work together to affect change. Thanks for taking the first step, for showing us the way.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:49 pm |
  22. jan

    why does everuone try to speak for Obama and sympathize with his gaffes? Can he not speak for himself? He is supposed to be the leader. instead, he is being babysat by his followers. Are you all going to make excuses for him during the entire 4 years? Is it just that he is unable to respond without a speechwriter? I would like to support democrats, but I cant run the country for him!

    April 13, 2008 at 6:45 pm |
  23. Susan M.

    Mr. Davis,
    I agree with you about civil dialogue on this issue. It is timely and very important and thank you for this opening to further discussion.
    I really appreciated Mr. Johnsons remarks although I cannot fully agree with some of his points. I have thought all along that Senator Obama's attachment to his church was essentially as Mr. Johnson's decription of his own search for a place and identity and full acceptance of his own place in the scheme of things. I feel that he must have felt a wonderful welcoming embrace, spiritually and culturally from the Trinity church.
    And this shines through in everything Senator Obama says in speaking of his Church and his pastor.
    But this still in the end cannot excuse his long time support of a man who does seem to hold very vocal and hateful and yes racist views. It would be equivalent to my sitting in a church and listening to a preacher rail against someone for being black, or Jewish or Muslim. This just is intolerent and unacceptable no matter how much I loved and revered them. To listen in silence, to financially support this church and pastor is absolutely unacceptable. And to bring up one's children in such an atmosphere is outrageous. And Senator Obama was fully aware of all of this even though he first claimed ignorance, and then admitted his knowledge.
    So while I understand his attachment to the church which has embraced him all these years, I still don't understand why he did not have the judgement and the courage to detach himself from its bias.
    This is a very unsettling issue for me.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:44 pm |
  24. marie

    Thank You for that. What Jeh wrote is the truth.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:41 pm |
  25. Mike in NYC

    "Historically, the black church is the one place for blacks free of any white influence, something blacks can call all their own."

    This sounds positively segregationist. He implies that "white influence" is bad, in which case the logical conclusion is that separation from that influence is the best option for blacks.

    To be honest, all the pressure has been on whites to give up places they "can call their own," in the name of "social justice." Recall Ms. Obama's call for [whites] to come out of their "comfort zones." Everyone has their “comfort zone” – I guess some groups deserve it, and some don’t.

    One wonders how much more one-sided this racial “dialogue” can get.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:37 pm |
  26. MariaWr

    Exactly. God bless you, Mr Johnson.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:27 pm |
  27. Roger

    The Jerimiah Wright issue is probably going to be what hurts Obama the most. It is very large scaled and America is full of racism from both sides. I am concerned about what kind of attitudes will come out of the black and white communities if Obama does become nominated. I feel like there may be more violence in America.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:20 pm |
  28. Hunter B.

    Also, I admire the courage it took Mr. Jeh Johnson to write a letter like this. The Rev. Wright rhetoric really needs to stop now.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  29. Hunter B.

    Somebody needs to post this letter on Obama's website... This hits the nail on the head.

    April 13, 2008 at 6:13 pm |
  30. Joshua Jones

    The term elitism is also sometimes misused to denote situations in which a group of people claiming to possess high abilities or simply an in-group or cadre grant themselves extra privileges at the expense of others. This debased form of elitism may be described as discrimination

    April 13, 2008 at 6:10 pm |
  31. Sharon Minnesota

    This testimony doesn't change the fact that white people are very insulted and afraid of the Black Liberation Movement Theology, or should be.

    I am a 67 year old white woman who grew up in Minneapolis and attended a bi-racial pentecostal church where my white father was assistant pastor to a black pastor.

    We were God fearing and peace loving and were warned about such churches preaching the gospel of hate toward whites. This theology is not new and hopefully will not prosper.

    Barack Obama should separate himself from this doctrine if he really wants to create unity among all people in America.

    April 13, 2008 at 5:55 pm |
  32. Slater

    Why do you have to make the distinction? Why do you have to hang on to the subculture of being an African American as if it is a life or death consequence of your daily life?

    Growing up, I watched as blacks continued to separate themselves from everyone, white, Latino, middle eastern and oriental, who were all proud Americans. Somewhere the big blow came, when they called themselves African Americans. Suddenly it was socially unacceptable to call them blacks, and they would meanwhile call one another every derogative name in the book, teaching others that witnessed it, no matter what their race, that such names were acceptable under certain circumstances. I don't care how you defend it; I never noticed the difference until young spry African Americans pointed out the differences. I never heard derogatory names associated with The African American community until I heard them calling each other by those names.

    Need I inform you that other aforementioned races come here and call themselves simply "Americans", and they do it proudly? African Americans do it with a sense of entitlement, which even Oprah has admitted puts her in a defensive stance when she wants to donate schools, money and other opportunities to her own community.

    What makes you so special? I am the direct decedent of Irish immigrants who were persecuted when they came here and went through all sorts of pain to become respected members of the community. The only difference was that my ancestors back in Ireland did not sell my ancestors to greedy Europeans. Like it or not, this is the truth, and the people of Africa, whom you associate yourselves with so proudly, made a profit in that transaction as well.

    Further, Africa has been well known for beating down and violating the rights of it's people for centuries, by any and every country that has ever owned interest in it. America is the only country that has attempted passionately to end that oppression here on our soil, yet "African" Americans continue to carry this torch as if America has not done anything. They continue to blame throw at the now shrinking white community (what will you do when that disappears?) without regard for what it does to future generations.

    It just baffles me how you and individuals such as yourself and Wright not only hang on to and pass this torch, but you create this struggle for countless young generation whites and African Americans today, tomorrow and decades into the future. I think this, and the senator's patriotism, are what are in question by all Americans.

    April 13, 2008 at 5:40 pm |
  33. Robyn Boyd

    I commend Mr Davis for posting this and perhaps taking off his Clinton rose colored glasses and at least trying to understand the racial divide in this country. I am the 62 yo white grandmother of a 6 foot tall, black, very gentle and polite grandson who I worry about everyday for things as simple as "driving while Black" or being in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting shot dozens of times because some scared police officer sees only his color or size.

    April 13, 2008 at 5:39 pm |
  34. Joan from Virginia

    Jeh Johnson's post should be read by every American. It explains fully why Obama has not denounced Wright.

    April 13, 2008 at 5:36 pm |
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