The Farrakhan moment: Reactions I


Here’s a running list of media reactions to the exchange about Louis Farrakhan during Tuesday night’s debate.

Andrew Sullivan (THE DAILY DISH)

Does Obama understand that saying he has consistently denounced him is not the same as simply saying, “I denounce him”? A weak response – reminiscent of Dukakis. (By the way, why is it somehow only a question for Jewish Americans that Farrakhan is a fascist hate-monger? It’s a question for all Americans.) Obama’s Farrakhan response suggests to me he is reluctant to attack a black demagogue. Maybe he wants to avoid a racial melee. But he has one. He needs to get real on this. Weak, weak, weak. Clinton sees an opening and pounces. She wins this round. He is forced to adjust. His worst moment in any debate since this campaign started. I’m astounded he couldn’t be more forceful. His inability to say by himself, unprompted, that Farrakhan’s support repels him and he rejects it outright really unsettles me.

I have not believed that Obama has an ounce of sympathy for a creep like Farrakhan. But Obama has now made me doubt this. If David Duke called John McCain a good man, would McCain hesitate to say he’d rather Duke opposed him? If this is how Obama wants to tackle this emotive issue, he needs to get real.


At that point it became clear that Obama simply would not say that he rejected Farrakhan’s support, preferring instead to refer to, but not repeat, previous statements. It’s a common technique for a politician who doesn’t want to say something to say that he has said it before without actually saying what he says he said. Here in Cleveland on Tuesday night, Obama seemed to be heading in that direction until Russert pressed a bit more, bringing up Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s long-time pastor, whose magazine last year said that Farrakhan “truly epitomized greatness.” And then Hillary Clinton — who must have enjoyed seeing her opponent take a rare turn on the hot seat — added, “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting…I have no doubt that everything Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we’ve got to be even stronger.”

At that moment, Obama was in trouble. If he continued to repeat his I-have-denounced-Minister-Farrakhan’s-anti-Semitic-statements position, he would clearly seem to be avoiding a larger critique of Farrakhan. So he rather nimbly suggested that it was all a matter of semantics, and if Sen. Clinton liked, he would reject as well as denounce. “Tim, I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” Obama said. “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.”

The concession got Obama out of trouble. But it didn’t stop the talk in the spin room after the debate. Was Obama initially trying to nuance his way through the question? “Sen. Clinton was pleased that he came back later and…not only denounced it but rejected support,” said top Clinton aide Mark Penn. But Penn continued: “I think you have to listen to the answers. He did not reject what his minister said about Farrakhan. If you listen to the answers, he only responded to Farrakhan, and he never responded to the fact that his minister, if I have it right, said that Farrakhan was a person of greatness. So if you listen very carefully, I do not think he in fact rejected or denounced his minister praising Farrakhan — he only did that to Farrakhan.”

Noah Scheiber (THE NEW REPUBLIC)

About two-thirds of the way through the debate, Barack Obama took a question about Louis Farrakhan’s support for his campaign. He gave a sufficient, if not quite stellar answer–saying he’d repeatedly denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic statements, that he’d long been a supporter of Israel, etc. At that point Hillary asked to weigh in. Her voice softened a bit, and she began: “I just want to add something here, because I faced a similar situation when I ran for the Senate in 2000.” I was sure she was going to invoke the firestorm she ignited after watching Suha Arafat deliver an anti-Israel tirade. Something like: “I stirred up a controversy by failing to condemn anti-Semitism, even though that’s how I felt, so I understand how sensitive the issue can be. But I also know Senator Obama is a good friend of the Jewish people.”

Instead, Hillary went with an anecdote whose point was to demonstrate her own vigilance on the issue. She lectured Obama about how it’s not sufficient to denounce anti-Semites; you have to actively reject their support. It was a sanctimonious turn, and Obama defused it with typical good humor. “I have to say I don’t see a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” he said. “But 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.”


I discussed this in the live debate blog. But I think it’s worth going back and watching Russert’s run of shame here. I would say it was borderline to bring up the issue of Farrakhan at all. But perhaps since it’s getting some media play you bring it up just for the record, for Obama to address.

That’s not what Russert did. He launches into it, gets into a parsing issue over word choices, then tries to find reasons to read into the record some of Farrakhan’s vilest quotes after Obama has just said he denounces all of them. Then he launches into a bizarre series of logical fallacies that had Obama needing to assure Jews that he didn’t believe that Farrakhan “epitomizes greatness”.

As a Jew and perhaps more importantly simply as a sentient being I found it disgusting. It was a nationwide, televised, MSM version of one of those noxious Obama smear emails.

Greg Sargent (THE NEW REPUBLIC):

This wasn’t an easy call, given what we’ve heard thus far (a question about Drudge, a gratuitous reference to Tim Russert’s blue collar background, etc.).

But the inane question of the night award goes to this Russert inanity, which we just heard moments ago:

“Do you accept the support of Louis Farrahkan?”


As a Scots-Irish broad, I saw Obama’s tepid response to Farrakhan, and was appalled. Emails from Jewish friends confirmed that I wasn’t alone. That Obama had to be led to this reality is proof of his ruffle no feathers at any cost mentality. It has nothing to do with him believing in our ‘special relationship’ with Israel, or insinuating anything remotely anti-semitic. It’s about moral courage and the conciliatory reflex he has to extend grace to people who haven’t earned and don’t deserve it. People like Louis Farrakhan.

Shmuel Rosner (HA’ARETZ):

If anyone had any doubt that Hillary’s campaign is trying to score points against Obama in the Jewish community – today she gave us the proof, publicly. … What was she trying to say – that Obama is somewhat anti-Semitic? Let’s assume she was just thinking that Obama was playing politics and is trying not to offend Farrakhan’s supporters while he denounces his views.

In any case, in this exchange Obama got the upper hand. …

Obama, talking about Farrakhan – and about anti-Semitism among African-Americans, which he also denounced in his speech on Martin Luther King Day – touched a sensitive nerve when he was talking about one possibility that’s inherent to his candidacy: he has the chance to restore the alliance between blacks and Jews.

This will not necessarily get Obama the votes of every Jewish liberal in this country. But it is also one promise that no American liberal Jew can simply ignore.

Recommended from JTA