The list of objectionable figures -- Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and Father Michael Pfleger -- surrounding Barack Obama is growing. But the one who is the most infamous garners the least attention: Louis Farrakhan.
Let's admit that Obama does not agree with Farrakhan that Judaism is a "gutter" or "dirty" religion and finds his comments that whites are "blue eyed devils" and Jews are "bloodsuckers" to be objectionable. When asked about Farrakhan in a presidential debate Obama stated that he had been "very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible."
But let's conduct a 30-second thought experiment: If John McCain went to a David Duke rally, belonged to a church which, through its magazine, gave Duke an award and had close colleagues who celebrated Duke's achievements would McCain still be a presidential candidate?
Time's up. The reason for the obvious "no" is that we expect presidential candidates to disassociate themselves from incendiary characters without reservation, not immerse themselves in the stew of their bigotry and hate.
Yet that is the cardinal failing of Obama when it came to Farrakhan. He never took affirmative steps to reject Farrakhan and halt Farrakhan's influence in Obama's community.
In a Chicago Reader profile on Obama, Hank De Zutter writes that Obama "took time off from attending campaign coffees to attend October's Million Man March in Washington, D.C. His experiences there only reinforced his reasons for jumping into politics."
In fact, Obama told De Zutter: "What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African-American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society. There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives."
THIS OCCURRED IN 1995, when Obama was no college kid, but rather a candidate for state senate in his mid-30s. And the Million Man March was no ordinary rally.
The Anti-Defamation League had pleaded with African American leaders not to attend, citing not only Farrakhan's role but that of Malik Zulu Shabazz, head of the New Black Panther Party, as co-convener of the March. Shabazz had a long history of anti-Semitic spewing as well, having told a university audience that Jews bear special responsibility for the slave trade and consider blacks to be "cursed."
As A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote at the time, "To march with Louis Farrakhan in Washington is to strengthen a man who leads a crusade against whites and for resegregation, to march with his goon squads, to march with anti-Semites -- to march straight into that swamp of hatred."
Yet into the swamp went Obama.
More recently in 2007, Trumpet magazine, the publication of Obama's Trinity United Church, presented Farrakhan with its "Trumpeter Award" for someone who "truly epitomized greatness." In January 2008, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen pondered why it was that Obama could not muster any "outrage" over the award.
Obama issued the most tepid of responses, saying that "I assume that Trumpet magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree."
More telling than the lame humor (equating Farrakhan with the "ex-offenders") was Obama's failure to remove himself at that point from the church where Farrakhan was lionized. Obama instead affected the passive role of a cynical observer, disclaiming any responsibility for events swirling around him.
Farrakhan's expression of support for Obama's presidential candidacy in February 2008 brought a nonchalant reaction from Obama's campaign the day before the presidential debate.
"Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Minister Farrakhan's past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister's support," said his spokesman when asked about Farrakhan's support. Ho hum.
At the debate the next day when asked about Farrakhan's endorsement Obama seemed to harken back to his words of praise in 1995, saying, "He [Farrakhan] expressed pride in an African-American who seems to be bringing the country together."
He then assured everyone that he had been an inert player in the endorsement, saying, "I obviously can't censor him, but it is not support that I sought. And we're not doing anything, I assure you, formally or informally with Minister Farrakhan."
After reiterating his denouncement of Farrakhan's anti-Semitism, Obama got needled by Hillary Clinton, who piped up with a reminder that she had rejected anti-Semites' support in the past. Obama pleaded, "I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting."
But he grudgingly offered: "If the word 'reject' Sen. Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
FARRAKHAN'S CLOSE association with his mentor Wright may have caused Obama to temper his reaction.
In the debate Tim Russert asked what Obama could do to reassure Jewish voters in light of the fact that Obama's pastor had "said that Louis Farrakhan 'epitomizes greatness.' He said that he went to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to visit with Moammar Gadhafi and that, when your political opponents found out about that, quote, 'your Jewish support would dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell.'"
Obama did not respond directly to Russert's description of the Wright-Farrakhan relationship. Instead he reiterated his support for the Jewish community. Obama could not bring himself to criticize, let alone reject or denounce, the close relationship between his mentor Wright and Farrakhan.
In all this Obama was a follower, not a leader, a compliant figure observing the vile influences of Farrakhan seep into his church and intoxicate those closest to him.
Even in retrospect Obama has never said that the Million Man March was something he should have avoided, no matter how many African-American men Farrakhan was bringing together. Likewise his spiritual mentors' infatuation with Farrakhan never provoked concern or signaled to Obama that he needed new mentors.
While acknowledging that Obama may share few if any of Farrakhan's views, it is nevertheless reasonable to have expected something more than passivity from the man who wants to be president. It is a truism that "all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." While Farrakhanism triumphed in Trinity United, what did Obama do?
Obama did not run from the orbit of Farrakhan, but participated and lingered in the "swamp of hatred" which Farrakhan spread. Rather that abate Farrakhan's ever-growing influence, he followed the crowd -- literally in the case of the Million Man March.
It is not clear why. We are left to wonder why he failed to disentangle himself from Farrakhan's tentacles. Whether it was poor judgment, cowardice or a bizarrely high tolerance for hateful figures, Obama's inactivity is puzzling in the extreme.
And the excuse for that Obama has employed with Rezko and Wright -- that this is not the man he knew -- is certainly not going to fly on this one.
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