WASHINGTON (JTA) – The head of the Anti-Defamation League says it’s time to pack away the Farrakhan fears when it comes to Barack Obama.
“He was very clear,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, describing the response of the Illinois senator who was asked in a debate Tuesday about the public praise he received over the weekend from the Nation of Islam leader.
“He distanced himself and condemned it and rejected it,” Foxman said. “What more do we want? On that issue we should move on.”
The Farrakhan question arose as Obama has sought to aggressively deflect falsehoods and distortions disseminated on the Internet describing the Democratic presidential contender as everything from a secret Muslim to being surrounded by anti-Israel advisers.
His campaign has blitzed Jewish voters with fact sheets attempting to rebut the attacks, and Obama himself has twice personally reached out to Jews – once in a conference call with the Jewish media and most recently in a private meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders. Ohio, a key primary state, goes to the polls on Tuesday.
Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington political consultant and a backer of Obama’s rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), praised Obama’s ringing denunciations of Farrakhan.
Rabinowitz noted, however, that Obama was likely to be dogged about his relationship with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose church has praised Farrakhan. Wright has traveled with Farrakhan to Libya.
“I think he’s been handling Farrakhan very well, Israel very well, the pastor Wright stuff not poorly, but just less well,” he said.
“He has been doing reasonably well with all this garbage short of cutting his ties with his pastor,” Rabinowitz said, adding that urging such a step would be a “bissel chutzpahdick of anyone to ask” – Yiddish for “a little presumptuous.”
The exchange over Farrakhan occurred when Obama and Clinton met in Cleveland for the 20th debate in the run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
MSNBC debate moderator Tim Russert pressed Obama on Farrakhan’s endorsement over the weekend, noting that the Nation of Islam leader had often made anti-Semitic remarks, once calling Judaism a “gutter religion.”
“I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic comments,” Obama said. “I think that 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.”
Pressed by Russert to reject Farrakhan’s support, Obama said, “Tim, you know, I can’t say to somebody that he can’t say that he thinks I’m a good guy.”
Russert continued to challenge the candidate, noting that Obama’s pastor, Wright, had expressed admiration for Farrakhan. Obama countered by noting his pro-Israel record, his calls on the African-American community to confront anti-Semitism within its ranks and his strong support among Jews in Illinois and nationwide.
Russert appeared ready to leave the matter when Clinton interjected, noting that she had rejected the support of the New York Independence Party in her 2000 run for the Senate because a leader, Lenora Fulani, had made anti-Semitic comments.
“I made it very clear that I did not want their support,” she said. “I rejected it. I said that it would not be anything I would be comfortable with and it looked as though I might pay a price for that.”
Clinton said “there’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” and that although she believed Obama was sincere, “we’ve got to be even stronger.”
Obama did not see the difference, but added, “I’m happy to concede the point. And I would reject and denounce.” Clinton responded “Excellent,” spurring the biggest applause of the evening.
Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton, credited her candidate’s leadership in bringing Obama around to a fuller denunciation of Farrakhan.
“I thought that exchange last night was a striking example of a point we have made before in the campaign – that on issues of concern to the Jewish community, Hillary is a leader,” Lewis said. “In the course of that two-minute exchange, she got Senator Obama to move from what was initially a less than full rejection of Minister Farrakhan to a full rejection. It was one of those moments of leadership.”
Obama’s efforts to add nuance to his condemnation of Farrakhan, noting his good works in drug rehabilitation in Chicago, echo the statements of other Democrats, including Jewish Democrats.
Ed Rendell, now the Pennsylvania governor and a major Clinton backer, invited Farrakhan to Philadelphia when he was mayor in 1997 to help calm racial tensions. And Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) asked for a meeting in 2000 when he was the vice presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket headed by Al Gore.
While Foxman said Obama had dealt with the Farrakhan issue, he mirrored the notion that the relationship with Wright was less likely to disappear. Foxman said he was unsatisfied with Obama’s explanation at the meeting with Cleveland’s Jews, in which Obama likened his pastor to a slightly dotty uncle who occasionally embarrasses.
If there were any doubt that the pastor issue isn’t going away, the Clinton campaign continued to make an issue of Wright.
“He did not reject what his minister said about Farrakhan,” Mark Penn, a top Clinton adviser, was quoted by National Review as saying after the debate. “He never responded to the fact that his minister, if I have it right, said that Farrakhan was a person of greatness.”