On the afternoon of Friday the 13th, I flew to Chicago to have dinner and discussion with the Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan, at his invitation, and the arrangement of his son-in-law, Leonard Muhammad, the chief-of-staff of the Nation of Islam. I’d been talking to members and friends of the Nation at the lower echelons since October 1995, having been greatly impressed with Min. Farrakhan’s performance and message at the Million Man March on the Washington Mall. I’d asked Jack Kemp to watch a tape of Farrakhan’s lengthy speech to the million black men who had come to Washington from all over the country. They came at his beckoning and at their own expense, to seek atonement for their sins of error and omission as men, as husbands and fathers, and as citizens of the national community. That is, it was not a march to petition the government for taxpayer resources in atonement for past sins of the national community against citizens of color -- which is why special interests usually march on Washington. It struck me that by virtue of his success, Min. Farrakhan had become the most important black leader in the United States in social and cultural matters, and that his great influence in that area could potentially spill over into the political realm in a way that would transform the national political landscape. It especially impressed me that Min. Farrakhan, whose media image has been that of an angry, anti-Semitic rabble-rouser, had directly appealed for a process of reconciliation with the American Jewish community. I’m certain it is an appeal made in good faith.
As a result of reviewing the materials I’d sent him, Kemp checked with several of his friends in the black community and found a consensus that Min. Farrakhan was serious. He then contacted friends in the Jewish community and met a brick wall, with profound skepticism of Farrakhan and no interest in a process of reconciliation. The process lapsed until the presidential campaign, when Kemp, in an interview with the Boston Globe, mentioned with praise the “wonderful” message he’d heard at the MMM and said he’d wished he could have addressed that assemblage. In the controversy that followed in the Jewish community, I picked up the thread again, contacting members of the Nation at the lower echelons and friends in the Jewish community. On a Sunday in October, I was called at home by Leonard Muhammad from Chicago, who probed the reasons for my interest and initiative. In the two months since, my telephone contact with Muhammad increased, especially after the November 5 elections when he was persuaded that my interest was not simply a flash in the political pan. We also had two lengthy dinners, one at the home of an influential friend of mine who is Christian, the other with a long-time friend who is Jewish, and has considerable political influence. At both, my friends came away with their skepticism not completely dissolved, but greatly diminished. My Jewish friend came away with the sense that the driving force behind Min. Farrakhan is more spiritual and religious than political. He told Muhammad that Farrakhan might more easily communicate with orthodox Hasidic rabbis than with Jewish political leaders.
This also was the sense I came away with after spending five solid hours at the dinner table with Min. Farrakhan on Friday, the first time we had met or spoken. He greeted me at 5:15 at his palatial home in Chicago’s Hyde Park section, the “National House,” as it is called, built decades ago by the Nation’s founder, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. We sat at a dining room table that would easily seat 35 or 40 people, joined by his wife of more than 40 years, Sis. Khadijah Farrakhan, Leonard Muhammad, and three other Nation associates. It was an early dinner, shortly after sundown, because December is a holy month of Ramadan in the American Islamic community; as members fast completely, eating or drinking nothing at all until sunset. The dinner of soup, fish and vegetables and an apple pudding dessert came and went quickly, but none of us left the table until 10:30 pm. At 7:30, I’d had the feeling that the dinner was going to conclude and I was going to be dismissed, but a turn in the conversation propelled us on for another three hours. The discussion ranged over theology, history, economics and politics. It began with a conversation about the role of the Good Shepherd in the Old Testament and the New, as a point at which religion and politics intersect. It concluded with my invitation to him and his wife to attend the Polyconomics annual client conference at the end of February in Boca Raton, Florida, and for him to speak at it, which was accepted with obvious enthusiasm. Min. Farrakhan did say that he had been speaking to virtually all-black audiences for 40 years and that he would like my guidance on how to approach our gathering, which will be virtually all white, in order that he not inadvertently offend anyone. It would be difficult to report on the details of a five-hour discussion in this paper, but here are general impressions:
1. My Jewish friend was correct. Min. Farrakhan’s center of gravity is his religiosity. I’d met many times with black leaders who are both politically active and ordained ministers, and always I’d quickly forgotten that they were men of the cloth. In the five hours, never did I forget that Farrakhan’s central paradigm is the Creator, the term he used more often, and that all of his thinking on social, cultural or political affairs stem from that spiritual core. Two years ago, I’d had a three-hour political discussion with the Catholic Bishop of Paterson, the Rev. Frank Rodimer, and had the same sense as I had with Min. Farrakhan, of a man who cannot disconnect into a wholly secular universe. In a relative sense, he is naive in the political and economic realms, when compared to the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton, who can easily disconnect from their ministries for the rough-and-tumble of the political world. When Leonard Muhammad made reference to my Jewish friend’s comment, Farrakhan beamed and said he would enjoy nothing more than a gathering of Hasidic rabbis, as they would speak the same language. Since the MMM, he said he has had high hopes that such a meeting could be arranged, but all efforts thus far have been fruitless. The most recent was attempted by Mike Wallace of CBS "60 Minutes," who is himself Jewish, yet an admirer of the Nation of Islam’s work. Wallace last week told me of his frustration in trying to bridge the gulf between the Nation and the Jewish community, wishing me well in my efforts.
2. With this Farrakhan core in mind, our political discussions left little doubt that he would not find it possible to become a partisan of either major political party. He gave me no reason to believe he voted for Clinton, Dole or Perot, although he did say he thought there would have been a much greater black vote for the Republican ticket if Kemp had been on top, instead of in second place. He volunteered that it would be much healthier for the black community, and the country, if it were not so beholden to one party. While I discounted some of the enthusiasm he expressed for Kemp, because he was entertaining a Kemp ally, he clearly saw Kemp’s initiative in the Boston Globe interview as an historic event, a sign of hope in the otherwise dismal picture he sees here and around the world. He strongly believes the Nation’s tensions with the Jewish community began in 1984, when he endorsed Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid. I expressed my belief that Jewish leaders fear that he could lead the black electorate away from the Democratic Party and into opposition of support for Israel. He seems totally perplexed that his criticisms of Jewish political leaders are taken as opposition to Israel. His criticisms are more of a zero-sum nature, that the more political power and influence American Jews exert on behalf of their priorities, the less is devoted to the black community.
3. The turn in the dinner conversation that lengthened it by three hours was when I addressed this zero-sum thinking, suggesting reconciliation was only really possible in a positive-sum world. A rising tide would lift all boats, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, black and white. My supply-side perspective on the history of the 20th century was one he had never heard before, and he drank it in as if he had just come upon an oasis in a desert. We talked about taxes, money, gold, oil, bankruptcy law, Karl Marx and Adam Smith, exchange rates, the Fed, the stock market, Africa, China, Cuba and Haiti. I gave him to read what I happened to have with me, promised to send him more, and agreed to links between his staff and mine. The dinner with Louis Farrakhan was a success, all that I hoped it would be, well worth the months I’d spent angling for an invitation. There will be more, I’m sure, and we will keep you informed of our progress.