On The Daily Show on Comedy Central Tuesday night, Jon Stewart pressed former Speaker Newt Gingrich to agree that Reverend Jeremiah Wright should not be a major story, that every candidate and president has a "preacher who’s said crazy things." Stewart professed he was "really stunned" by the media’s focus, and he asked, "Isn't the silliness of this now boiling down to the strategy of shouldn't we be focusing on whether this is truly an issue?" He also claimed Wright is like many ministers, black and white: "Don't white preachers have very similar beliefs, but when they counsel a candidate, nobody really focuses on them?"
Gingrich was playful, but firm: "I think if you replaced the word, the various things he said about white America, like Ku Klux Klan America, if you replace those with the word ‘black’ and you imagine a white racist preacher who was as vehement as Reverend Wright, he would literally be ostracized in this culture." He also raised Obama’s connection to Weather Underground figure William Ayers. But Stewart wasn’t budging: "I think if he played that game of six degrees of separation with other candidates you could probably find equally vile characters circling the universe."
After Gingrich cracked jokes about how Obama couldn’t get the Clinton Foundation to send Reverend Wright around the globe for six months on good-will missions, Stewart grew serious:
STEWART: I'm stunned that this is such a big story. I'm actually stunned. Don't you think?
GINGRICH, with look of disbelief: Are you stunned-stunned, or just a little stunned?
STEWART: I’m really stunned.
GINGRICH: Really stunned?
STEWART: I’m really stunned that his pastor has become a focal point of this campaign.
GINGRICH: Okay. Well, there are many pastors that are as effective on TV being hateful with a kind of enthusiastic style.
STEWART: But should he pay for his ability as a preacher when certainly every president's preachers have said crazy things?
GINGRICH: Should Wright pay, or should Obama pay?
STEWART: Should Obama pay? And should the media be so... you know, just as an example. You said Senator McCain has the ability to stand outside of it. He went after the endorsement of Reverend Hagee.
GINGRICH: And then had to give it up.
STEWART: No. He went on George Stephanapoulos's show and asked him about it. He said I welcome his endorsement. He said I repudiate anybody who says anti-anything. But he just went I accept it. And they went, ‘oh, all right. What's the next question?’ I mean, that guy said....
GINGRICH: It could be a sign of media bias.
STEWART: Not media bias.You know what I'm saying. You know, Falwell and Robertson said 9/11 was because we secularized our culture, yet they're still allowed to play in the game. I don't understand why this is such a... ( cheers and applause ) I'm not blaming you. I'm just saying don't you find that surprising?
GINGRICH: Well, I think first of all there's a little bit of a difference between a church one guy went to for 20 years and the intensity of the statements. But what really made, I think what really made the difference, and where Obama had no choice was that when Wright went to the National Press Club, I mean this is not exactly a let's hide and, you know, get past the election. When he went to the National Press Club, I sensed that Wright was in a sense getting even with Obama, and that there was a level of anger. I mean, a couple of the things he said yesterday were so direct and so destructive of Senator Obama's own credibility that I suspect last night when he looked at it, Obama realized he had literally no choice.
GINGRICH: Now I mean the challenge is going to be, I think it's first of all, will the average person believe there's much credibility in Senator Obama doing this and the second is what is right to do? What we learned so far is Reverend Wright is not exactly a shy, timid guy.
Stewart tried a very acrobatic spin, that somehow it was more necessary for McCain to avoid the endorsement of preachers he didn’t really know than for Obama to know and care about what his minister of 20 years had said in public, since that’s a "complicated" relationship:
STEWART: Isn't that the point though? Isn't the silliness of this now boiling down to the strategy of shouldn't we be focusing on whether this is truly an issue? Is it an issue if you went to a church... he knows Reverend. Wright in a complicated way. He’s had a 20-year relationship with him. These other gentlemen, Hagee, have actually just been approached for their endorsement. They seem much easier to avoid. It seems –
GINGRICH: That's part of the difference. If John McCain had gone to Pastor Hagee's church for 20 years, you'd have a lot harder, it would be a lot harder for John to go, "Oh, gosh, I didn't know he said those things."
STEWART: But it's not a question of not knowing that he said it. Isn't it a question of getting the full context of the picture? What I’m saying is --
GINGRICH: That's what Reverend Wright sort of went out of his way, if you read what he said yesterday he went out of his way to say let me explain this to you again. Do I think the U.S. Government invented aids in order to kill black people? Yes. At that point –
STEWART: He said after Tuskegee, you gotta think the government, you can believe anything.
GINGRICH: I think he does believe anything. The average American thinks that’s a little weird.
STEWART: Don't preachers by their very nature believe that in a causality that god lifts his veil of protection based on our actions? Isn't that not unusual for a preacher to believe in a lot of these things? Don't white preachers have very similar beliefs, but when they counsel a candidate, nobody really focuses on them?
GINGRICH: I think if you replaced the word, the various things he said about white America, like Ku Klux Klan America, if you replace those with the word ‘black’ and you imagine a white racist preacher who was as vehement as Reverend Wright, he would literally be ostracized in this culture.
STEWART: For you it's not the 9/11 statements, it's the racist statements.
GINGRICH: It's the totality. I mean I think somebody who says the things about america... and the thing that makes it very dangerous for Senator Obama is it's when it's then tied to William Ayers, the terrorist who is now a very radical professor of education. You start getting this network of people and say what does obama really believe? I think obama is one of the greatest performers of modern times. I think his campaign is extraordinary. I think that the message he offered of hope and idealism and of change was a very powerful message. And this sort of cuts directly under... I mean this begins to reduce him to being a politician at a point when his whole appeal was that he was somehow this very different person.
STEWART: Right. I think if he played that game of six degrees of separation with other candidates you could probably find equally vile characters circling the universe. ( Applause ) but I don't know.
GINGRICH: First of all with Senator McCain, there are a number of people who clearly were pretty bad, because they were his guards in the prison [in Vietnam]. So you can say he knew them.
STEWART Hey, man, Reverend Wright fought six years in the Marine Corps. So he can't be all bad, right? [Actually, it was two years in the Marines and four in the Navy.]
GINGRICH: I think Reverend Wright in many ways is a very complex American.
STEWART: Aren't we... you know what? That's a beautiful statement, because aren't we all? Wouldn't it be better if perhaps we were able to accept the complexity of people and events and issues?
GINGRICH: Then what would the news media do?
STEWART, after laughing: Promote books.
GINGRICH: That’s a good idea. I’m for that.
If there was another way for Stewart to shoot down the rising blimp of Wright news, he surely would have tried it.