Russert persisted in questioning Obama on Farrakhan -- even after his repeated "denunciation[s]" of Farrakhan's "unacceptable and reprehensible" comments

››› ››› ANDREW WALZER & MATT GERTZ

During the February 26 Democratic primary debate, Tim Russert repeatedly questioned Sen. Barack Obama about his endorsement by Louis Farrakhan without noting that the campaign was quoted criticizing Farrakhan in the very article Russert cited to note the minister's support, that Obama himself said in a speech the day before the debate that he is a "consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan," or that Obama denounced Farrakhan's comments in his response to Russert's initial question on the subject.

During the February 26 MSNBC Democratic primary debate, co-moderator and NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert repeatedly questioned Sen. Barack Obama concerning his endorsement by controversial minister Louis Farrakhan without noting that the campaign was quoted criticizing Farrakhan in the very article Russert cited to note the minister's support, that Obama himself said in a speech the day before the debate that he is a "consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan," or that Obama denounced Farrakhan's comments in his response to Russert's initial question on the subject.

Further, in three separate posts while liveblogging the debate for the MSNBC.com blog First Read, NBC News political director Chuck Todd criticized Obama's statements, at one point asking, "Why didn't Obama simply say he rejected Farrakhan's support? That's an answer he's going to wish he had over." But at no time did Todd note that Obama denounced Farrakhan's comments before and during the debate. (By contrast, in a First Read post from later on February 26, NBC and National Journal correspondent Aswini Anburajan asserted: "Obama wins with the word denounce which is more applicable to use when you find someone's positions distasteful.")

Russert began the discussion of Farrakhan by asking Obama, "On Sunday, the headline in your hometown paper, Chicago Tribune: 'Louis Farrakhan backs Obama for president at Nation of Islam convention in Chicago.' Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?" Indeed, that was the headline of a February 25 Tribune article discussing Farrakhan's endorsement of Obama. But Russert did not note the article's subhead: "Senator has criticized him, says support not sought." Nor did he mention that the article quoted Obama spokesman Bill Burton as saying: "Senator Obama has been clear in his objections to Minister Farrakhan's past pronouncements and has not solicited the minister's support."

In response to Russert's question, Obama said:

OBAMA: You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. 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.

Following Obama's answer, Russert asked, "Do you reject his support?" Obama then replied, "Well, Tim, you know, I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy," adding: "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." Russert continued, stating: "The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism 'gutter religion.' " Obama replied, "I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That's why I have consistently denounced it." Indeed, in his answer to Russert's initial question, the first thing Obama said was, "You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments," calling them "unacceptable and reprehensible."

Russert persisted, stating, "The title of one of your books, Audacity of Hope [Crown, 2006], you acknowledge you got from a sermon from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the head of the Trinity United Church. He said that Louis Farrakhan 'epitomizes greatness,' " before asking Obama, "What do you do to assure Jewish Americans that, whether it's Farrakhan's support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?" Trumpet Newsmagazine, a publication founded by Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, where Obama is a parishioner and Wright was a minister, awarded Farrakhan the "Lifetime Achievement 'Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. Trumpeter Award' " in 2007. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen reported that Trumpet said Farrakhan "truly epitomized greatness." But Russert did not acknowledge that Obama had said in a statement after the announcement of the award that it was "not a decision with which I agree" or that in his statement, Obama denounced Farrakhan's "anti-Semitic statements."

Obama's January 15 statement, from his campaign website:

"I decry racism and anti-Semitism in every form and strongly condemn the anti-Semitic statements made by Minister Farrakhan. I assume that Trumpet Magazine made its own decision to honor Farrakhan based on his efforts to rehabilitate ex-offenders, but it is not a decision with which I agree."

Further, following Farrakhan's endorsement, Obama gave a speech on February 25 at a Jewish community meeting in Cleveland in which he stated:

OBAMA: It is true that my Pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who will be retiring this month, is somebody who on occasion can say controversial things. ... He does not have a close relationship with Louis Farrakhan.I have been a consistent, before I go any further, a consistent denunciator of Louis Farrakhan, nobody challenges that. And what is true is that, recently this is probably, I guess last year. An award was given to Farrakhan for his work on behave of ex-offenders completely unrelated to his controversial statements. And I believe that was a mistake and showed a lack of sensitivity to [the] Jewish community and I said so.

Louis Farrakhan is a resident of Chicago and as a consequence he has been active in a range of community activities, particularly around ex-offenders and dealing with them.

From the February 26 MSNBC Democratic primary debate:

RUSSERT: Senator Obama, one of the things in a campaign is that you have to react to unexpected developments. On Sunday, the headline in your hometown paper, Chicago Tribune: "Louis Farrakhan backs Obama for president at Nation of Islam convention in Chicago." Do you accept the support of Louis Farrakhan?

OBAMA: You know, I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan's anti-Semitic comments. 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.

RUSSERT: Do you reject his support?

OBAMA: Well, Tim, you know, I can't say to somebody that he can't say that he thinks I'm a good guy. [laughter] 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.

RUSSERT: The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism "gutter religion."

OBAMA: Tim, I think -- I am very familiar with his record, as are the American people. That's why I have consistently denounced it. This is not something new. This is something that -- I live in Chicago. He lives in Chicago. I've been very clear in terms of me believing that what he has said is reprehensible and inappropriate. And I have consistently distanced myself from him.

RUSSERT: The title of one of your books, Audacity of Hope, you acknowledge you got from a sermon from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the head of the Trinity United Church. He said that Louis Farrakhan "epitomizes greatness." He said that he went to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to visit with Muammar Qaddafi and that, when your political opponents found out about that, quote, "your Jewish support would dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell."

What do you do to assure Jewish Americans that, whether it's Farrakhan's support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?

OBAMA: Tim, I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this presidential campaign. And the reason is because I have been a stalwart friend of Israel's. I think they are one of our most important allies in the region, and I think that their security is sacrosanct, and that the United States is in a special relationship with them, as is true with my relationship with the Jewish community.

And the reason that I have such strong support is because they know that not only would I not tolerate anti-Semitism in any form, but also because of the fact that what I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community.

You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.

But, you know, the reason that I have such strong support in the Jewish community and have historically -- it was true in my U.S. Senate campaign, and it's true in this presidency -- is because the people who know me best know that I consistently have not only befriended the Jewish community, not only have I been strong on Israel, but, more importantly, I've been willing to speak out even when it is not comfortable.

When I was -- just the last point I would make -- when I was giving -- had the honor of giving a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in conjunction with Martin Luther King's birthday in front of a large African-American audience, I specifically spoke out against anti-Semitism within the African-American community. And that's what gives people confidence that I will continue to do that when I'm president of the United States.

BRIAN WILLIAMS (co-moderator): Senator --

CLINTON: Tim, I just want to add something here, because I faced a similar situation when I ran for the Senate in 2000 in New York. And in New York, there are more than the two parties, Democratic and Republican. And one of the parties at that time, the Independence Party, was under the control of people who were anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. And I made it very clear that I did not want their support. 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. But I would not be associated with people who said such inflammatory and untrue charges against either Israel or Jewish people in our country.

And, you know, I was willing to take that stand, and, you know, fortunately the people of New York supported me and I won. But at the time, I thought it was more important to stand on principle and to reject the kind of conditions that went with support like that.

RUSSERT: Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?

CLINTON: No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory -- I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger. We cannot let anyone in any way say these things because of the implications that they have, which can be so far-reaching.

OBAMA: Tim, I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting. There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it. 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.

CLINTON: Good. Good. Excellent.

Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Tim Russert
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, 2008 Elections
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