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Obama's Farrakhan Test

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

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.

cohenr@washpost.com


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