WASHINGTON (Sep. 10)
Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp has found himself locked in a torrent of criticism for heaping praise on part of Louis Farrakhan’s philosophy.
When asked in an interview published Sunday in the Boston Globe about his opinion of the Nation of Islam leader’s self-help philosophy for the black community, Kemp said, “It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful,” according to a transcript of the interview provided by the paper.
As Jewish Democrats pounced on Kemp for “cozying up to Farrakhan,” the virulently anti-Semitic black leader, Jewish Republicans and Kemp’s staff sought to downplay the significance of his comments.
Whether Kemp touched the third rail of politics — the one that could amount to political suicide for the Republicans — in the Jewish community by praising a Farrakhan policy may only be known on Election Day.
Kemp, who was careful to say in the interview that he does not endorse the Nation of Islam, also praised Farrakhan’s Million Man March and the speech he delivered at the rally last year.
“That Million Man March was a celebration of responsible fatherhood, individual initiative, of not asking the government to do everything for you, and getting an opportunity to be the man that God meant you to be,” Kemp said, noting that Farrakhan “quoted the Jewish Bible” more than the Koran.
“I would have liked to have been invited to speak,” Kemp said.
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), a self-described Kemp supporter, said in a telephone interview that he “strongly disagrees” with the vice presidential candidate’s assessment of Farrakhan.
“You can’t separate the message from the messenger when the messenger is as evil as Louis Farrakhan,” said King, one of Farrakhan’s most vocal critics in Congress.
“Any positive statement helps Farrakhan,” King said. “Kemp should not have done that.”
The flare-up gave Jewish Democrats a new avenue to attack the Republican presidential ticket.
Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, attacked Kemp for “declaring peace in our time with Louis Farrakhan.”
“It is surprising and disappointing that Kemp would choose to ally himself with Farrakhan,” he said. “Kemp’s attempt to take this into every ghetto and barrio has crossed the line of decency,” Forman said, playing on part of Kemp’s stump speech.
Aware of the potential backlash at the polls, the Dole-Kemp campaign went on the offensive to argue that Kemp’s remarks “were sorely misrepresented.”
“Jack Kemp embraces the message of personal responsibility. But the messenger can never be an anti-Semitic bigot,” Kemp’s spokeswoman, Alixe Glenn, said in a telephone interview, referring to Farrakhan.
Previewing a message that Kemp was expected to bring in his address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations’ 40th anniversary gala Tuesday night, Glenn said, “Jack Kemp believes that racial, religious and ethnic reconciliation is our nation’s highest cause and that any form of racism or bigotry or anti-Semitism must be eradicated at every turn.”
In speaking to the Boston Globe, Kemp himself appeared aware that his comments might set off the very reaction that they have received.
“I’m going to set off rockets if this is taken out of context,” he was quoted as saying in that interview. “But I think it’s interesting that in America today, in the black community, more and more black church leaders are telling men to be responsible fathers and to be respectful of their wives and women.”
Kemp, who has been reaching out to black voters on behalf of the Republican ticket, gave the interview to the Globe hours after addressing a Harlem rally where he shared the stage with Conrad Muhammad, a local Nation of Islam leader.
Muhammad “just happened to be there” and “definitely was not invited” by the campaign, Glenn said.
Jewish Republicans chalked up the controversy to “political posturing on the part of the Democrats,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish group.
“Clearly Kemp’s remarks can be distorted for political gains by Democrats,” Brooks said. But he also acknowledged that Farrakhan could also “use this for his own political gain.”
And that is a real danger, the NJDC’s Forman said.
“Jack Kemp is providing Farrakhan with respectability and legitimacy,” he said.
While the organized Jewish community tends to lay low during election seasons, the Anti-Defamation League criticized Kemp, calling his comments “disappointing.”
“Farrakhan’s appeals to responsibility and independence merely sugarcoat a message that is bigoted and divisive to the core,” ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, wrote in a letter to the editor at the Boston Globe.
“Louis Farrakhan’s views are a package deal,” Foxman continued. “As constructive as his `self-help philosophy’ may appear, it cannot be separated from the remainder of his vitriolic message.”