Now, let's look at the transcript:
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, one of the things in a campaign is that you have to react to unexpected developments.Russert challenges Obama to show what he's made of. Farrakhan offers his support: Do you have the courage to say no, I don't want your support, I reject it?
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?
SEN. 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.Obama makes 2 significant rhetorical moves: 1. He reverts to the use of the past tense and 2. He refers to not to Farrakhan, the man, but to some of the things that Farrahkan has said in the past. This distances him from the question asked and leaves room for him to accept the support of the man.
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.Clearly, this is a failure to reject Farrakhan. It's extremely clever, but don't be fooled by the cleverness, which was hard to catch in real time. He's creating the space for Farrakhan to operate separately, bringing him support. Farrahkan didn't coordinate with the campaign in any way. Fine. That wasn't the question. Farrakhan has said some good things about Obama, and Obama doesn't want to say I don't accept support from this man. He talks about the nonissue of censoring him. Of course, Obama can't make Farrakhan stop, but he can do what Russert asked him to do: Say that he rejects the support.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you reject his support?Russert sees what is happening and asks the perfect follow-up.
SEN. 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."Of him" here matters. This is the one place where there is a reference to the man — though perhaps only the man and his comments — the man if he continues to come attached to the kind of statements he's made in the past. And there is still a failure to say that he rejects the support. And he's still speaking in the past tense. He still won't say "I denounce Farrakhan" or "I reject his support." He must want the support for the good it can do him. That's understandable, but it is an opening for Hillary Clinton.
MR. RUSSERT: The problem some voters may have is, as you know, Reverend Farrakhan called Judaism "gutter religion."Obama neatly packages the issue into the statements and the denunciations of the past.
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."Russert opens the matter back up with details and with the figure of Jeremiah Wright, from whom Obama has not distanced himself.
He said that he went to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to visit with Moammar Gadhafi and that, when your political opponents found out about that, quote, "your Jewish support would dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell."
RUSSERT: 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.This too is a clever set of rhetorical moves. How can he reassure Jews? 1. Jews already support him. 2. Jews were historically great benefactors of black people. (I love Jews.) 3. He has the capacity to rebuild the connections between Jews and African-Americans. (Jews should love me.)
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.
That implies, I think, that people should worry less about what second-rate leaders like Farrakhan and Wright have been doing in the past and think more hopefully about what a first-rate leader like him can do in the future. In this view, garishly severing ties to Farrakhan and Wright is either beside the point or counterproductive. Let those 2 characters operate at a distance, helping Obama achieve power, and, at that point, Obama will get everything right and then he can transform everyone and root out all traces of anti-Semitism.
[OBAMA:] 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.These 3 paragraphs filibuster the same point. Please forget the nasty things Tim Russert said so long ago.
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 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.
WILLIAMS: Senator...Great! She saw what just happened. She made the exact point that needed to be made. And she had a personal example of courage, doing precise thing that Russert invited Obama to do. Perfect.
CLINTON: 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 Patty, 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.Perfect.
RUSSERT: Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?In other words: Please, Hillary, explain, for those out there who might not have noticed what you said you did and which Obama just wriggled out of doing.
CLINTON: No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting.Make it clear! Don't let this look like a Clintonesque word game. This isn't "what the meaning of is is." There is a real difference. Say what it is so your best point isn't lost!
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.From her best moment to her worst! She melted into near gibberish. Why? What was she afraid of? Did she lose her grip on the subject? "Sort of, you know"? "I just think"? The filler words pop up everywhere. Bland praise seeps in: Obama is "absolutely sincere." And the distinction she just made between him and her becomes a lame wish to become "even stronger." So then, he's already strong, so what are you quibbling about? What a lost opportunity!
OBAMA: Tim, I have to say I don't see a difference between denouncing and rejecting.He doesn't miss the opportunities. He just drove in the knife, yet it sounded lighthearted and funny.
There's no formal offer of help from Minister Farrakhan that would involve me rejecting it.Huh? Clinton should be preparing her attack based on this nonsense. You can reject help that isn't formally offered!
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.This is the part everyone notices. It's hilarious. We love him. And she now seems ridiculous. Come back up for air, Hillary! Fight it! He gave you an opening! Point out where he failed.
CLINTON: Good. Good. Excellent.Astounding! Hillary Clinton does not have the instinct for blood. She either gave up or she lacks the chops to keep up with him.
(APPLAUSE)Ah, see? They like you when you concede to him. Hopeless.
WILLIAMS: Rare audience outburst on the agreement over rejecting and renouncing.And the "moderator" Brian Williams scores a victory for Obama.
We're going to take advantage of this opportunity to take the second of our limited breaks. We'll be back live from Cleveland right after this.The referee stops the fight.
ADDED: What others are saying. Andrew Sullivan, live-blogging:
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.Josh Marshall (referring to this segment of the debate as "Russert's run of shame"):
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.
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.Wow, I thought Andrew Sullivan was the one who was blinded by love for Obama. What an interesting comparison between Andrew "why is it somehow only a question for Jewish Americans" Sullivan and Josh "as a Jew" Marshall!
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.
Don Frederick at the LA Times: "He could have saved himself some potential grief if he had been less circular arriving at that point" (of equating "reject" and "denounce"). Oh, Don, don't you see? It's all about the circular. It only worked because of the circularity. I mean, it's the circularity that made you think it was only circular!
Sticking with the MSM blogs, here's Katharine Q. Seelye for the NYT:
One of the more revealing bits — and a new subject to these debates — was over Minister Louis Farrakhan’s endorsement of Mr. Obama.Yes, isn't it nice that they're both good? He's better though. And she was, you know, right.
Asked if he rejected that support, Mr. Obama joked that he couldn’t really say that to someone who “thinks I’m a good guy,” but added, “I have been very clear in my denunciations of him.” Mrs. Clinton then said she had rejected the support of an anti-semitic party in New York and that it had been “important to stand on principle.” “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting,” she said. Whereupon Mr. Obama said he didn’t see a big difference but, “I’m happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce.”
The exchange showed both of them in a strong light — she spotted an opening, portrayed her own heroics and pushed him to her side, while he showed flexibility and good judgment in quickly agreeing with her and defusing the issue.
[T]here were was his weird language about the endorsement by Louis Farrakhan. There are some things you just don’t do in American politics: calling Farrakhan “minister Farrakhan” is one of them. He’s been declared persona non grata by everyone in the mainstream of our politics. It seemed to take badgering by Clinton for Obama to reject it explicitly (although he did not embrace it and had distanced himself from it before). I don't think Obama's at fault here... I think the circumstances conspired against him... but it just didn't sound right...Circumstances conspired against him? What's that supposed to mean? Didn't sound right? It wasn't right!
MORE: Noam Scheiber brings up an incident from Hillary's 2000 Senate campaign relating to Suha Arafat: "I was sure she was going to invoke the firestorm she ignited after watching Suha Arafat deliver an anti-Israel tirade." Here's a 2000 NYT article that gives background on the Suha Arafat incident:
On [a trip to the West Bank in 1999], Mrs. Clinton was photographed kissing the wife of Yasir Arafat, after Mrs. Arafat, speaking in Arabic, accused the Israeli government of employing toxic gas against Palestinian women and children. Mrs. Clinton condemned Mrs. Arafat hours later, after receiving, she said, an official translation of her remarks.So what's Scheiber's point?
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.Taylor Marsh says "Obama Blows his 'Sister Soujah' Moment":
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.