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January 15, 2008

Guilt By Association

It didn't take long for Hillary Clinton supporters to latch onto Barack Obama's church as a rebuttal to the criticism they've taken for Hillary's remarks about the role of civil-rights activists in fostering real change. Richard Cohen takes up the cudgel by demanding that Obama disavow the minister of Trinity United Church for his endorsement of Louis Farrakhan via an award given in his name:

Barack Obama is a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Its minister, and Obama's spiritual adviser, is the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. In 1982, the church launched Trumpet Newsmagazine; Wright's daughters serve as publisher and executive editor. Every year, the magazine makes awards in various categories. Last year, it gave the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award to a man it said "truly epitomized greatness." That man is Louis Farrakhan.

Maybe for Wright and some others, Farrakhan "epitomized greatness." For most Americans, though, Farrakhan epitomizes racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism. Over the years, he has compiled an awesome record of offensive statements, even denigrating the Holocaust by falsely attributing it to Jewish cooperation with Hitler -- "They helped him get the Third Reich on the road." His history is a rancid stew of lies.

It's important to state right off that nothing in Obama's record suggests he harbors anti-Semitic views or agrees with Wright when it comes to Farrakhan. Instead, as Obama's top campaign aide, David Axelrod, points out, Obama often has said that he and his minister sometimes disagree. Farrakhan, Axelrod told me, is one of those instances.

Normally, I would not go out of my way to defend Obama, but this is a rather unusual tactic for his opponents -- even if sincere, as I believe Cohen to be. One could argue that Obama needs to explain the view of his church on its more ethnocentric doctrines, especially given the inclusiveness Obama preaches and by all accounts lives. His membership in that congregation is his decision, and perhaps it has some significance for voters, although it certainly sidles up to a red line that respects religious diversity. It's quite another to demand that Obama answer for the decisions of his minister, who has nothing to do with Obama's campaign or his policy formulation.

Had Obama published a newsletter that praised and feted Farrakhan, that would be different. Farrakhan has a noxious history of anti-Semitism, as Cohen documents in small part. If Obama ran the church that published the newsletter that awarded Farrakhan, it would also be a legitimate issue to cover in the campaign. However, Obama merely attends the church; he does not make those decisions, and one would suspect that he'd be a lot smarter than Wright about it if he did. Obama should not have to answer for either Farrakhan or Wright, and implying that he has some responsibility to do so attempts to assign guilt by second-hand association.

Consider the eruptions that came from Hillary's camp over the last couple of weeks. Billy Shaheen explicitly suggested that Barack Obama may have dealt drugs without any evidence supporting that allegation. BET chief Robert Johnson alluded to Obama's admitted drug use as a teenager to suggest something similar. Both of them had direct ties to Hillary's campaign, which made Hillary responsible for their behavior. Not only does Farrakhan have no ties to Obama, but Obama isn't putting Wright out on the campaign trail as Hillary did with Johnson.

This seems intended to paint Obama as anti-Semitic as a way to push back against the repeated Hillary fumbles on her civil-rights rhetoric and attacks on Obama. If so, this is very, very thin gruel.


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