Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Obama's Farrakhan Test (Richard Cohen)

For those who have been paying attention, it has been clear that at some point Barack Obama would face some political embarrassments (to put it mildly) in connection with his membership in Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. One of these embarrassments is now beginning to materialize, and Obama will have to face up to it. How he does so may be significant--not just for his candidacy, but also for the health of our political culture.

Obama has long had a close association with the head of his church, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who appears to be a pretty complex figure (Jonathan Raban recently wrote an interesting and sympathetic account of Wright and of the relationship between Wright and Obama.) Some aspects of Wright's ministry and his ideas seem to be inspiring--by Obama's own account, he found Wright a major source of inspiration himself. Others are quirky or problematic, and some are downright ugly.

For example, Rev. Wright is an enthusiastic admirer of the poisonous and appalling Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. Aside from Farrakhan's notorious anti-semitism, homophobic bigotry, and anti-white racism, he is a supporter of various foreign dictatorships and a long-time apologist for Sudanese regime, which has been guilty of crimes against black Africans that include slavery and genocidal mass murder. And all that is just for starters. (Back when Malcolm X was assassinated by the Nation of Islam, which at that point was still run by its founder Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan immediately praised the murder, and he may even have had a direct hand in setting it up.)

With an exquisite sense of timing, the Rev. Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ picked December 2007 as the moment to publicly honor Farrakhan. Since this happened in the middle of the presidential campaign, just as Obama was emerging as one of the Democratic front-runners, it was bound to come to public notice. (There have already been articles in Europe about this subject, including this one.) Furthermore, it needed to come out ... and as Cohen correctly says, it presents Obama with a significant and potentially revealing political test. He'd better not fail it.

As I said a few days ago in an e-mail exchange with another blogger, who had been complaining about what he saw as the Clinton campaign's explicitly or implicitly "racialized" attacks on Obama (a complaint that struck me as overstated), the whole issue of Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church can't simply be waved away:
This is a real issue, not a bogus or artificially "racialized" one. Obama is actively involved in a church that, among other things, just gave a "Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Trumpeteer Award" to Louis Farrakhan (whose problem is not that he is black but that he is, among other things, a homophobic bigot and a racist anti-semite).

Given everything, that indirect connection is not enough to prevent me from having a very positive opinion of Obama. I feel quite sure that he doesn't share any of those views--in fact, I agree with my friend Adam LeBor that a President Obama would probably be "good for the Jews." Nor do I get the impression that the head of this church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., is necessarily or entirely a bad guy--my sense, based not on any in-depth examination but just on a few of the pieces I've read about Obama, is that Rev. Wright has good and bad points. So for the moment I'm inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt in this matter. But at the same time, we should face the fact that all this is, at the very least, potentially troubling. And in talking about what might be politically problematic about Obama's church and its pastor, we ought to face reality, shouldn't we?

At some point, especially if Obama is nominated, this is an association he's going to have to explain more publicly and explicitly than he's had to do so far ... and it will be entirely legitimate to ask him to do that. Frankly, I think it's a little surprising that he hasn't been asked any questions about Farrakhan yet ... but I'm sure he's expecting that, and I expect that he will handle it well when the moment comes, even though it may be a little tricky. (Let's hope he does so, both for his sake and for everyone else's.)
Given Obama's record, I do expect that in responding to this issue he will do the right thing, somehow or other. But it will be a genuinely difficult test of Obama's political skill and integrity. If he doesn't clearly and explicitly repudiate Farrakhan at some point, that will be outrageous (and politically damaging, as it should be). This is a serious moral issue, which Obama should not and cannot evade. But it will be tricky to repudiate Farrakhan with any degree of clarity and honesty without, at the same time, offending some people in the black community (including Rev. Wright and his congregation). That will take finesse, and I wish him luck.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. If Obama's supporters--in the blogosphere and elsewhere--now attack Cohen for having the temerity to raise this issue, that will be disgraceful. (I'm hoping they won't, but I have a sinking feeling that some of them might.) Actually, if Obama can get this out of the way early, and do it a morally appropriate and politically savvy way, that will be best all around.

Update: Obama's first response to this question is encouraging.
Washington Post
Tuesday, January 15, 2008 (Page A13)
Obama's Farrakhan Test
By Richard Cohen

Barack Obama is a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Its minister, and Obama's spiritual adviser, is the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In 1982, the church launched Trumpet Newsmagazine; Wright's daughters serve as publisher and executive editor. Every year, the magazine makes awards in various categories. Last year, it gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said "truly epitomized greatness." That man is Louis Farrakhan.

Maybe for Wright and some others, Farrakhan "epitomized greatness." For most Americans, though, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism. Over the years, he has compiled an awesome record of offensive statements, even denigrating the Holocaust by falsely attributing it to Jewish cooperation with Hitler -- "They helped him get the Third Reich on the road." His history is a rancid stew of lies.

It's important to state right off that nothing in Obama's record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan. Instead, as Obama's top campaign aide, David Axelrod, points out, Obama often has said that he and his minister sometimes disagree. Farrakhan, Axelrod told me, is one of those instances.

Fine. But where I differ with Axelrod and, I assume, Obama is that praise for an anti-Semitic demagogue is not a minor difference or an intrachurch issue. The Obama camp takes the view that its candidate, now that he has been told about the award, is under no obligation to speak out on the Farrakhan matter. It was not Obama's church that made the award but a magazine. This is a distinction without much of a difference. And given who the parishioner is, the obligation to speak out is all the greater. He could be the next American president. Where is his sense of outrage?

Any praise of Farrakhan heightens the prestige of the leader of the Nation of Islam. For good reasons and bad, he is already admired in portions of the black community, sometimes for his efforts to rehabilitate criminals. His anti-Semitism is either not considered relevant or is shared, particularly his false insistence that Jews have played an inordinate role in victimizing African Americans.

In this, Farrakhan stands history on its head. It was Jews who disproportionately marched for civil rights and, in Mississippi, died for that cause. Farrakhan and, in effect, Wright, despoil the graves of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and, of course, their black colleague James Chaney.

I can even see how someone, maybe even Obama, could dismiss Farrakhan as a pest, a silly man pushing a silly cause that poses no real threat to the Jewish community. Still, history tells us that anti-Semitism is not to be trifled with. It is a botulism of the mind.

The Obama and Clinton campaigns are involved in a tasteless tussle over the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. What is clear from rereading King's celebrated "I Have a Dream" speech of Aug. 28, 1963, is how inclusive that dream was -- "all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

This, though, is not Farrakhan's dream. He has vilified whites and singled out Jews to blame for crimes large and small, either committed by others as well or not at all. (A dominant role in the slave trade, for instance.) He has talked of Jewish conspiracies to set a media line for the whole nation. He has reviled Jews in a manner that brings Hitler to mind.

And yet Wright heaped praise on Farrakhan. According to Trumpet, he applauded his "depth of analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation." He praised "his integrity and honesty." He called him "an unforgettable force, a catalyst for change and a religious leader who is sincere about his faith and his purpose." These are the words of a man who prayed with Obama just before the Illinois senator announced his run for the presidency. Will he pray with him just before his inaugural?

I don't for a moment think that Obama shares Wright's views on Farrakhan. But the rap on Obama is that he is a fog of a man. We know little about him, and, for all my admiration of him, I wonder about his mettle. The New York Times recently reported on Obama's penchant while serving in the Illinois legislature for merely voting "present" when faced with some tough issues. Farrakhan, in a strictly political sense, may be a tough issue for him. This time, though, "present" will not do.