Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Obama's response on Farrakhan goes public

In my post on Obama's Farrakhan Test yesterday morning, I noted that this issue put Obama in a potentially tricky situation, and it would be interesting to see how he responded:
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.
To cut through the layers of inaccuracy and misrepresentation that quickly began to bury the facts of this affair, Obama was not simply being asked to ritually denounce Farrakhan because he is an African-American politician. That wasn't the issue at all. There was a concrete connection here, though not one that Obama himself chose. Obama and his wife are active members of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, and Obama has a long and close association with the head of the TUCC, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Wright is an enthusiastic admirer of Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan (who, among other things, happens to be a notorious racist anti-semite, homophobic bigot, and otherwise poisonous figure). More specifically, in December 2007 this organization of which Obama is a prominent member publicly honored Farrakhan by presenting him with its "Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Trumpeteer Award," accompanied by a hagiographic write-up in the church's newsmagazine. It was clear that Obama would have to deal with this matter at some point, and it was entirely legitimate to ask him to do so.

=> While too many otherwise sensible people immediately filled the blogosphere with silly, sometimes dishonest, often disgraceful, and at times hysterical outbursts claiming that it was illegitimate, unfair, and/or racist even to raise such issues--the herd instinct kicked in depressingly quickly--the Obama campaign responded with a brief, straightforward, and very un-defensive statement, which I quoted from Greg Sargent of Talking Points Memo. This didn't entirely surprise me. Obama must have known for a while that this question was coming, and I assumed that he had a good answer already worked out. (If he didn't, then he's not the superb politician he appears to be.)

At first it wasn't clear whether this was going to be just a preliminary reply from the campaign to a few journalists and bloggers or its public statement on the affair. I now see that this statement has been posted on the Obama campaign website, and it seems to have been sent around widely.
Barack Obama Condemns Anti-Semitism
Chicago, IL | January 15, 2008

Today, Senator Barack Obama released the following statement:

"I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. 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."
As I said yesterday:
That's a good answer--clear, direct, and unambiguous. Obama doesn't try to pretend that Farrakhan isn't an anti-semite, and he states explicitly that he disagrees with the decision to give Farrakhan this award. (There is also no whining about the question having been raised, and no insinuation that raising it was some kind of racist slur.)

At the moment, this is just one brief response posted on one political blog, but it's a very encouraging start.
I expected that this statement was a first step toward a more fleshed-out public response by Obama himself, but perhaps not. Obama was willing to issue a statement explicitly criticizing Farrakhan, which is honest and commendable, but he would probably like to avoid being recorded on TV saying these things, which some people in the African-American community might regard as a more conspicuous provocation. This is a concession to some unfortunate political facts of life (and we can and should recognize them as political realities without losing sight of the fact that they are, indeed, unfortunate).

On the other hand, Obama has a lot of Jewish supporters and political allies as well as long-standing good relationships with a range of Jewish community organizations. There are signs that they want to be satisfied with this response, and that they will go out of their way to disseminate and applaud Obama's statement--starting with the Anti-Defamation League (see below).

=> So is this the end of the matter, at least for the moment? We'll see. Obama's membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ and his close relationship with its pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, still have the potential to bring him various political embarrassments. But Obama's quick response to this particular test was, as I said, encouraging. And by raising the issue of Farrakhan now (rather than having it get raised in a much more nasty and poisonous way by the Republicans, if and when Obama becomes the Democratic candidate), Cohen will probably turn out to have done Obama a favor.

--Jeff Weintraub
Boston Globe (on-line)
January 15, 2008 08:06 PM
Obama distances himself from Farrakhan
Scott Helman, Political Reporter

The friction between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over Clinton's words about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have ebbed, but Obama today found himself in another delicate situation involving race and a prominent black leader.

In this morning's Washington Post, columnist Richard Cohen took Obama's church, Trinity United Church of Christ, on Chicago's South Side, to task for giving an award last year to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The church, through its magazine, bestowed on Farrakhan its Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award -- named for its pastor -- saying Farrakhan "truly epitomized greatness."

"Maybe for Wright and some others, Farrakhan 'epitomized greatness,' Cohen wrote. "For most Americans, though, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism."

The column caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League, which was preparing to publicly press Obama to distance himself from the award and from Farrakhan. But Obama's campaign, before the ADL could act, put out a statement doing just that.

"I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan," Obama said in a statement released by his aides. "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."

Abraham H. Foxman, ADL's national director, welcomed Obama's words.

"Issues of racism and anti-Semitism must be beyond the bounds of politics," Foxman said in a statement. "When someone close to a political figure shows sympathy and support for an individual who makes his name espousing bigotry, that political figure needs to distance himself from that decision. Senator Obama has done just that."

This isn't the first time Obama's church, and his minister, have created a hiccup for his campaign. In February, Obama disinvited Wright from giving the invocation at his campaign kickoff in Springfield, Ill., apparently fearing controversy from Wright's Afrocentric teachings.