Politics & Policy

Obama and the Farrakhan Trap

The Democratic frontrunner stepped in it Tuesday night.

Cleveland, Ohio — Talking to reporters after the Democratic debate here at Cleveland State University, David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s closest adviser, insisted that Obama didn’t try to spin his way through a question on Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently praised Obama as “the hope of the entire world” who is “capturing audiences of black and brown and red and yellow.” “I thought that he was very forthright about it,” Axelrod explained. “The point is this: Louis Farrakhan said kind things about [Obama]. From what I read, he didn’t say it was an endorsement, and I think Sen. Obama made clear what his position on Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic statements was.”

The question stemmed from Obama’s initial answer when NBC’s Tim Russert asked, “Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?” Obama might have said, “No.” But instead, he seemed to go out of his way to denounce some of Farrakhan’s statements while not taking on Farrakhan himself (and even using Farrakhan’s preferred honorific in the process). “You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments,” Obama said. “I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in an African-American who seems to be bringing the country together. 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.”

More than a few observers were taken aback by Obama’s not-so-deft sidestep. What if, the blogger Andrew Sullivan asked, it had been a question to John McCain about David Duke? And what if McCain had answered, “You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Dr. Duke’s racist comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible. I did not solicit this support. He expressed pride in a white man who seems to be bringing the country together. 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 Dr. Duke.”

And what if then, after the debate, McCain’s top campaign aide explained by saying, “The point is this: David Duke said kind things about [McCain]. From what I read, he didn’t say it was an endorsement, and I think Sen. McCain made clear what his position on Duke’s racist statements was.”

But Obama’s sidestepping didn’t stop there. After his answer, Russert asked again, just as directly, “Do you reject his support?” Obama might have answered, “Yes,” but instead tried his best to stay away from anything so definitive. “Well, Tim, you know, I can’t say to somebody that he can’t say that he thinks I’m a good guy. You know, I — you know, I — I have been very clear in my denunciations of him and his past statements, and I think that indicates to the American people what my stance is on those comments.”

At that point it became clear that Obama simply would not say that he rejected Farrakhan’s support, preferring instead to refer to, but not repeat, previous statements. It’s a common technique for a politician who doesn’t want to say something to say that he has said it before without actually saying what he says he said. Here in Cleveland on Tuesday night, Obama seemed to be heading in that direction until Russert pressed a bit more, bringing up Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s long-time pastor, whose magazine last year said that Farrakhan “truly epitomized greatness.” And then Hillary Clinton — who must have enjoyed seeing her opponent take a rare turn on the hot seat — added, “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting…I have no doubt that everything Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we’ve got to be even stronger.”

At that moment, Obama was in trouble. If he continued to repeat his I-have-denounced-Minister-Farrakhan’s-anti-Semitic-statements position, he would clearly seem to be avoiding a larger critique of Farrakhan. So he rather nimbly suggested that it was all a matter of semantics, and if Sen. Clinton liked, he would reject as well as denounce. “Tim, I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” Obama said. “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.”

The concession got Obama out of trouble. But it didn’t stop the talk in the spin room after the debate. Was Obama initially trying to nuance his way through the question? “Sen. Clinton was pleased that he came back later and…not only denounced it but rejected support,” said top Clinton aide Mark Penn. But Penn continued: “I think you have to listen to the answers. He did not reject what his minister said about Farrakhan. If you listen to the answers, he only responded to Farrakhan, and he never responded to the fact that his minister, if I have it right, said that Farrakhan was a person of greatness. So if you listen very carefully, I do not think he in fact rejected or denounced his minister praising Farrakhan — he only did that to Farrakhan.”

A few feet away, Rev. Jesse Jackson approached the question indirectly. He told reporters he was disappointed that there wasn’t a serious discussion of poverty in the debate; why was there no time to discuss the poor and time to discuss Louis Farrakhan? And if there was going to be a discussion of Farrakhan, how could it then leave out…Bill O’Reilly? “They mentioned the Farrakhan matter,” Jackson said. “He’s a free speaker, but in the case of O’Reilly, who suggested about Michelle Obama’s statement about love for the country, about the lynch mob — a very reprehensible statement. He comes under FCC and Fox scrutiny. And so I thought there was an imbalance there.”

(Jackson was referring to a recent incident in which the Fox News host, on his radio program, defended Mrs. Obama on her comment that she had not, in her adult life, been proud of her country until her husband’s run for president. “I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama until there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels,” O’Reilly said. Later, O’Reilly, noting that his statement was in Mrs. Obama’s defense, said, “I’m sorry if my statement offended anybody.”)

In the end, what did Farrakhan’s prominent role in Tuesday nights debate amount to? Perhaps it was all just of interest to the press. But Obama’s reluctance, at least initially, to reject Farrakhan’s support said something about the closeness of this Democratic race. There are a lot of voters out there who admire Louis Farrakhan. Why alienate them? “What I think we all have to be careful of, in the process of these elections, is people saying, ‘O.K., I support you,’ and then determining whether or not you would want or not want their support,” Ohio Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Clinton supporter, said after the debate. “I am confident that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would love to have the votes of people within the Farrakhan sect… Maybe you don’t necessarily embrace the leadership, but you embrace the fact that there are millions — not millions, but thousands — of people within that religion who on a daily basis are suffering from the same things all the rest of us are suffering from.”

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