By Colbert I. King
Saturday, March 8, 2008
Frequent readers of this column know that I'm not one to start trouble. But this is the political season; scratchy topics are part of daily reporting. So let's return to a figure prominent in last week's column: Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan.
You might recall that during the Feb. 26 Democratic debate in Cleveland, NBC's Washington bureau chief, Tim Russert, pressed Sen. Barack Obama on an endorsement he received from Farrakhan. Obama said he had previously denounced Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments and had not sought the endorsement.
Hillary Clinton weighed in, suggesting that Obama's denunciation of Farrakhan's endorsement wasn't enough.
Clinton pointed out that when she ran for the Senate in 2000, she "rejected" unsolicited support received from an "anti-Semitic, anti-Israel" group.
"And it looked as though I might pay a price for that," she said. "But I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country."
Clinton demanded that Obama do more than "denounce" Farrakhan's endorsement. Obama responded that he didn't see the difference between denouncing and rejecting but said: "If the word 'reject' Senator Clinton feels is stronger than the word 'denounce,' then I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce."
Thus we have the Farrakhan litmus test, a sort of oral examination often administered to black political candidates. It's one of many tests Obama can expect to face in the coming weeks.
Whether Obama passed or failed the Farrakhan test might depend on where you stand on Obama's candidacy. But the exchange regarding the controversial Nation of Islam leader probably did Hillary Clinton some good, given Farrakhan's radioactivity in many parts of the country.
Which raises the question: Where was Hillary Clinton when her husband, former president Bill Clinton, made nice with Louis Farrakhan?
What? You didn't know?
Oh, you're probably thinking back to the fall of 1995, when the Million Man March convened in Washington under Farrakhan's leadership. That's when then-President Clinton made it plain that he objected to Farrakhan as the leader of the gathering on the Mall.
The day of the march, Clinton told a University of Texas audience that "one million are right to be standing up for personal responsibility, but a million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division."
It was clear he was talking about Farrakhan.
But that was then.
Ten years later, miles away from Washington and the national press corps, perched comfortably in his Harlem office, Bill Clinton had a decidedly different take on Farrakhan.
In a May 2005 interview with the black weekly newspaper the New York Amsterdam News, the former president said that he supported the efforts of Louis Farrakhan and the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to organize a Million More March in the nation's capital that fall.
During his presidency Clinton made a distinction between Farrakhan and the marchers, but Clinton the New Yorker commended the Nation of Islam leader and the two black preachers for coming together to focus the country's attention on problems confronting African Americans.
"Jesse [Jackson], and Mr. [Louis] Farrakhan and Rev. [Al] Sharpton probably have internal domestic political differences," Clinton is quoted as saying, "but they've agreed on this, and I think it's a good thing."
Clinton said: "I like the idea of a march, but I think it would also be good at the march for them to say, 'We want to call your attention to this problem, and here's something else you can do. And that it's fine to be concerned about [homeland] security, but we also have to keep trying to make America strong and better here at home."
Post-White House Clinton found no fault with Farrakhan's leadership. There was no mention of Farrakhan's "malice and division" during the interview.
There was also no mention of a Farrakhan speech given that year, on Feb. 26, in which he reportedly told a Chicago audience: "Listen, Jewish people don't have no hands that are free of the blood of us [blacks]. They owned slave ships. They bought us and sold us. They raped and robbed us."
No matter. Bill Clinton, sitting with the Amsterdam News and enjoying his first full day in the office since his second operation, was good to go with Farrakhan's leadership of the Million More March -- a fact he was willing to share with . . . a black audience.
And, pray tell, what was Hillary Clinton doing then?
She was, as she is now, a U.S. senator from New York.
Did Hillary get on Bill's case, too?
Hush my mouth! Now I've quit reporting and gone to meddling.