Transfixed by the two-candidate "horse race," maybe we didn't focus precisely on what happened in the home stretch of the last Democratic debate when Barack Obama tried to pick and nuance his way through a straight-ahead question from MSNBC's Tim Russert.
Q: Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?
The question arose because the longtime racist and anti-Semitic leader of the racist and anti-Semitic Nation of Islam had delivered a two-hour speech devoted mainly to praising Obama's candidacy.
Here is Obama's answer: "You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. I think 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."
"Minister" Farrakhan? The honorific seems unduly deferential applied to a demagogue who, just to recall a few pearls of his noxiousness, has labeled Judaism a "gutter religion," said "the white man" is "the anti-Christ," and suggested the post-Katrina failure of the New Orleans levees was a "white" plot to flood "black" neighborhoods. But what is most important here is to note Obama's failure to take a stand on Farrakhan support: "I obviously can't censor him" -- whether Obama could censor him wasn't the question -- "but it is not support I sought."
Kind of tepid, no? Russert tried again.
Q: Do you reject his support?
Here is Obama's second answer. "Well, Tim, you know, I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy." (This, of course, was just another way of saying Obama couldn't censor Farrakhan.) The presidential candidate continued: "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."
Again, Russert hadn't asked Obama about "his stance" on "those comments." The question was about Farrakhan as a package deal. Did Obama accept his support? Did Obama reject his support?
So far, no answer. And this was incredible. Before a national audience, Obama, whose very candidacy has come to symbolize a promise of "post-racial" "unity" in America, failed to reject the support of arguably the most racist and divisive figure in America.
Russert tried another tack, this time raising the ties between Farrakhan and Obama's pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. of Chicago's Trinity United Church. Russert noted that Wright, whom Obama has called his "spiritual mentor" and "sounding board," has not only traveled with Farrakhan to visit Moammar Gadhafi in Libya -- some junket. Wright has also said that Farrakhan "epitomized greatness." Just last year, Wright's church, known for a creed aptly described as black separatist, bestowed on Farrakhan the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Lifetime Achievement Trumpeteer award.
Does the Farrakhan-Wright relationship explain the reason Obama appeared unwilling to denounce Farrakhan altogether -- not just his more notorious statements? Alas, such a question remained unasked. Obama launched into a lengthy discussion about Israel's security ("sacrosanct"), the civil rights movement, even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, without mentioning Farrakhan or Wright again.
None of which escaped his opponent's notice. "I just want to add something here," Hillary Clinton said. She explained that under similar circumstances during her first Senate race in New York she had repudiated the support of a political party she described as anti-Semitic. "I rejected it," Clinton said in one of her genuinely better debating points. "I said that it would not be anything I would be comfortable with ... I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger."
Clearly, Obama had to say something stronger. So he did: "Tim, I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. ... But 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."
One could ask, Reject what? Denounce what? But the more interesting question is why was it so hard for Senator Post-Racial Unity to reject Minister Racism and Divisiveness?
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