"There's a certain passion in John Kasich that I heard that I believe could bode well for the Republican Party," Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, told me in a television taping here last weekend. This suggests an extraordinarily odd political couple carrying vast future implications.
The praise was not music to the ears of Rep. Kasich, a budget-cutting conservative with presidential ambitions. A few hours before Farrakhan's CNN interview, Kasich was startled when his speech here to a closed-door audience was interrupted several times by standing applause from the Nation of Islam leader. As they shook hands afterward, the congressman was floored by Farrakhan's kind words.
In white America, Louis Farrakhan is an untouchable. So ambitious a politician as Kasich has not dared confer with him and has no plans to do so. But if they ever got together, the political landscape would be transformed. Republican aspirations to be a true majority would be enhanced by a foothold among African Americans. More significantly, the racial animosity in this country could be diminished.
Farrakhan is a political pariah because he is accused of the unpardonable sin of antisemitism. His rhetoric over the years has certainly been objectionable. But during three days at Boca Raton, Farrakhan seemed a man attempting to transcend his past.
He addressed the 13th annual gathering of Republican executives and investors sponsored by supply-side consultant Jude Wanniski. I have helped moderate all these meetings, and Farrakhan's stress on self-help and moral values evoked the longest sustained applause I have seen from the rich, sophisticated listeners -- several of them Jewish.
In our television interview, Farrakhan complained that Bill Clinton, engaging in "kissing little black babies . . . took the black vote for granted" and "Bob Dole seemed not to want it at all."
As for a will to make the races come together, Farrakhan said: "I don't see it in President Clinton. I don't feel it seriously in his administration. I really didn't see it in Mr. Dole. But perhaps the young man I heard . . . Mr. Kasich, and perhaps Jack Kemp and perhaps others who think along those lines might be able, with help, to make something work for America."
Farrakhan, the man who brought a million men to Washington in 1995, is knocking on the door of the Republican Party -- the first modern black popular leader to do so. But who will open the door and sit down to talk to him?
Conservative Republican Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri was here and spent the better part of two hours as Farrakhan's dinner partner. But Republicans with national aspirations are not so bold. When Kemp, during his 1996 vice presidential campaign, praised the Million Man March, longtime Jewish supporters had a fit, and GOP strategists vilified his old friend Wanniski for leading the candidate astray. Kemp also spoke here but has yet to exchange a single word with Farrakhan or even shake hands with him.
One prominent businessman who is active in the Jewish community met privately with Farrakhan here, though he does not want his name revealed. He told me he believes Farrakhan is honestly trying to make an overture to white people and understands that to do so he must end his fierce confrontation with Jews, who view him as the black Hitler. That change, however, could risk support from his core constituency.
After the march in October 1995, I wrote that Farrakhan's "call for black men to heal themselves was surrounded by racist mumbo jumbo" -- an appraisal whose harshness might have resulted from passing a black man's words through my white lens. But here last weekend as he addressed only the third white audience in a long career filled with speechmaking, Farrakhan's rhetoric was mostly a cross between the Christian Coalition and libertarianism, while occasionally reverting to talk of white conspiracy and black revolution. At age 63, he seems to be a work in progress.
Philadelphia investment counselor Russell Redenbaugh, a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, heard Farrakhan at Boca Raton and was impressed that "he is a serious man with something to say." Redenbaugh is going to Chicago, Farrakhan's base, to meet with him. It is a start that conceivably could lead John Kasich some day to sit down with Louis Farrakhan and just talk.