LOUIS Farrakhan disappointed me twice on Monday. Known for saying what's on his mind -- no holds barred -- the Nation of Islam leader bit his tongue before hundreds of thousands of black men who gathered for the Million Man March.
Aspiring to statesmanship, Minister Farrakhan issued a call to sit down with Jewish leaders with whom he has been sparring for more than a decade in one of the most public, most rancorous, most bitter and persistent feuds in public life.
"I don't like this squabble with the members of the Jewish community," he told the sea of marchers who gathered on The Mall in Washington. "If you can sit down with Arafat, where there are rivers of blood between [Arab and Jew], why can't you sit down with us where there are no rivers of blood?"
But on the Mall, Minister Farrakhan didn't say what he wanted to discuss with Jewish leaders -- or with which Jewish leaders he wanted to meet. The widely held assumption is that any Farrakhan-Jewish dialogue would discuss whether he is anti-Semitic; whether Jews are the "bloodsuckers" of the black community; whether Jews masterminded the slave trade; whether, indeed, the great chasm between him and a people whom he has targeted as villains had any chance of even being bridged.
Who is the messiah?
But Minister Farrakhan has other plans. In the privacy of his home, he has told me that any talks with Jews would begin by "clearing away the rubbish they could determine that I'd heaped on the Jewish community." Next would come determining Jews' role in slavery. The last stage -- possibly, the most important and delicate stage -- would determine whether Elijah Muhammad, who headed the Nation of Islam from the early 1930s until his death in 1975, was the messiah.
"If he is that man," said Minister Farrakhan, "than what is the duty of the Jewish community to that man? What is the duty of the Arab community? What is the duty of white America and the government? Is Elijah Muhammad a fake? Is he really from God? To me, such a man is good for the Jews or for white people. He comes to help them get out of the condition they're in if they should heed his call."
Minister Farrakhan wanted to meet with Jewish religious leaders, not with "those Jews who run civic organizations and political organizations , the kind of people who don't read or study the Torah."
By omitting the Messiah Debate from Monday's speech, Minister Farrakhan may have been playing for time: After all, there's only so much you can say in a 2 1/2 -hour speech.
The other disappointment was that, from the very person who had called for a "Day of Atonement," had come no atoning. Instead, his "lecture," as he tagged his oration -- the capstone to 10 hours of speeches and harangues, sermons and poetry, introductions and testimonials -- was a catalog of wrongs, evils -- and infamies visited throughout history on blacks.
Not to say that none of this happened or that amends should somehow not be made, but on this day when he had implored black men to look inward, to repent, to confront their weaknesses and uphold their strengths, Louis Farrakhan -- who professes to be a humble servant of Allah and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad -- seemed to have forgotten the meaning of introspection. Instead, he voiced grievances against whites, indulged in arcane numerology, uttered displeasure at blacks who gravitate toward whites, and demanded that America make reparations for its sorry treatment of blacks.
And yet, in vast arenas and in the privacy of his home, I have heard Minister Farrakhan admit his shortcomings and errors, his failings and faults. For a very public man, he can often reveal his very private soul; on this day when he had all America riveted to his every syllable on nationwide TV, when he could have delivered the rhetorical equivalent of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, one garnished with acute phrasings, stellar imagery, biblical cadences and a clear, precise vision -- on this day, he was the teacher, the master, the guide.
But he was not penitent, which was a downright shame because he, like all of us, has much for which to atone.
Arthur J. Magida's biography of Louis Farrakhan, "Prophet of Rage," will be published in February.