Obama Tag Teamed on Farrakhan

Last night’s Democratic debate featured seven minutes of discussion of Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Despite Obama forthrightly rejecting, denouncing, and otherwise disassociating himself from Farrakhan within the first paragraph of his answer, moderator Tim Russert continued to hammer him with Farrakhan quotes and then allowed Hillary Clinton a couple of minutes to bash Obama with the need to use a word stronger than “renounce.”

Here’s the video:

Josh Marshall is absolutely right on this one: the introduction of the issue itself was “borderline” and devoting this much time to it was “disgusting.”

I’d differ slightly with Josh, though, in reserving all the criticism for Russert. Clinton should not have played along with this charade and could have won some big-time brownie points for dismissing it as a non-issue and saying that, of course, Obama isn’t a Farrakhan minion.

Contrast that with John McCain’s swift and direct denunciation of a supporter’s “Barack Hussein Obama” crack. To be sure, McCain hasn’t always covered himself in glory on that score in private gatherings with supporters; but he’s been scrupulous about respecting opponents in public forums.

Politics ain’t beanbag, they say, and candidates are sometimes going to make unfair criticisms of their opponents for fundraising, inspiring their supporters, humor, or other reasons. But it’s stupid and counterproductive to try to make hay of controversies that are so obviously off target as the Farrakhan endorsement or Obama’s ‘Muslim clothes,’ or the fact that his middle name happens to be “Hussein.” It amazes me when seasoned politicians don’t seize the high ground even when it comes at no cost and will likely redound to their credit.

UPDATE: Both Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Drezner’s Official Wife thought Obama’s rejection of Farrakhan was too tepid, with Sully terming it “reminiscent of Dukakis.” I’m hardly an Obama fanboy but I just don’t see it. What more was he supposed to say? “I hate that son of a bitch and hope he rots in hell?”

Dan Drezner himself agrees.

Correction: The original update lumped Dr. and Mrs. Drezner’s reactions together when they were in fact distinct.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    What more was he supposed to say? “I hate that son of a bitch and hope he rots in hell?”

    Frankly, James, I think that’s exactly what they were looking for. I myself don’t care for that sort of thing, and I thought Obama’s comments were appropriate. Although I did find it amusing that you can hear in the background that once Hillary jumped in, the crowd moved to be sympathetic with Obama. Additionally, I loved, “If the word ‘reject’ is stronger than ‘renounce’ then I reject and denounce.” Which the crowd apparently did, too.

  2. Kathy says:

    I agree with everything you wrote here, James — and I would add that, having seen the video (last night), I think Obama handled the situation superbly. He never lost his poise, even though you could tell he was angry.

  3. Pug says:

    Russert is so beloved by his fellow media hounds exactly for questions like the ones about Farrakhan last night. They think he looks tough. It’s a shame they don’t realize he really looks like a puffed-up, self-important ass.

  4. Hal says:

    Really, though, this is just the beginning. I think we’ll look back at this and think of this moment as one of the nicer ones of the ’08 campaign – back when things were “civil”.

  5. Other Ed says:

    One thing that this primary campaign has shown is that Obama definitely is cool and unflappable under fire. With McCain’s reputation for being a hothead, the difference in demeanor could make for a very interesting contrast in the general election. Especially if Obama can somehow connect McCain’s shooting from the hip with Bush’s cowboy image.

  6. yetanotherjohn says:

    For a more substantive parsing of the point, Althouse goes through the transcript.

    Her conclusion was that Obama has given himself room reap the benefits of Farrakhan support while seeming to denounce it. Further, that Clinton missed the opportunity to make the point by degenerating into “gibberish”.

    I think it is also instructive to contrast McCain distancing himself from a supporter who McCain felt had stepped over the line and Obama handling of Farrakhan.

  7. ds says:

    I like Obama’s answer too, but some of the media didn’t quite cover it that way = they omitted some parts and made it sound like Obama is against African-Americans (Farrakhan being one of top black leaders in the US, helping the poor and all despite his religion). It is so disturbing how shallow some of our journalists are. First, they poke fun at our own president, making the entire nation humiliated in front of other countries in the world (I know, since I’m an expat), second, they make Islam a black goat to everything that went wrong with 9/11. Although I’m not a Muslim, living abroad has given me a more informed wisdom that there is nothing wrong with the thousands years old religion that promotes morality, goodness, kindness, etc just like Christianity. As the matter of fact, both Christianity and Islam are branches of Judaism where Islam is more similar towards Judaism than Christianity in terms of Jesus. I disagree with any racist remarks such as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Christians or anything like that. Anyway, I am glad that some of the journalists like yourself deliver the news as it is with the video. i just hope more people see this article and the video and think for themselves.

  8. grampagravy says:

    The only thing wackier than spending time on what Farrakhan says or does is the suggestion that there are any benefits to be reaped from his support.

  9. mannning says:

    If one wants to be President, one has to clean up the past associations that would harm one’s image.
    So NOW it is time for Obama to renounce his Muslim friends. Why NOW?

    Hypocritical, isn’t it?

  10. Hal says:

    Mannning, if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, you’re an idiot.

    Pray, tell, what past associations with Farrakhan does Obama have that needs to be cleaned up?

  11. floyd says:

    Never mind Farrakhan! I hear Obama has been known to associate with the likes of Richard M. Daley and Rod Blagojevich, not to mention Michael J. Madigan or Howard Dean!!
    Isn’t that scandal enough for disqualification?

  12. grampagravy says:

    “The last thing a political party gives up is its vocabulary.”

    Alexis de Tocqueville
    I would add that the use of that vocabulary becomes more and more venomous as defeat looms on the horizon.