WASHINGTON — Louis Farrakhan's latest pitch for mainstream political acceptance has ignited partisan bickering between two Jewish politicos.
Attending an annual gathering of Republican executives and investors in Florida earlier this month, the Nation of Islam leader tried to cozy up to GOP leaders — a move that drew the ire of Jewish Democrats.
Conservative commentator Robert Novak, who moderated the conference, wrote in his nationally syndicated column that Farrakhan "seemed a man attempting to transcend his past."
Farrakhan "is knocking on the door of the Republican Party," Novak said, suggesting that someone in the GOP should consider sitting down and talking to him.
Key Democrats also attended the event, including Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and U.N. envoy Bill Richardson.
Conference sponsor Jude Wanniski said Dodd began a speech by congratulating the Republicans for inviting Farrakhan — a move that sparked GOP charges of Democratic hypocrisy.
Farrakhan's overtures were roundly rebuffed by some leading Republicans, among them William Bennett, co-director of Empower America, and Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.
"How dumb can we be?" Bennett said, calling Farrakhan "a bigot, a racist and an anti-Semite."
Reed warned against standing with "purveyors of hate, demagogues of division, loathers of liberty."
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), one of Farrakhan's toughest critics in Congress, said, "Novak or anyone else who thinks Farrakhan has something positive to offer the Republican Party is completely nuts."
The National Jewish Democratic Council also weighed in, urging GOP leaders to distance themselves from Farrakhan.
Ira Forman, executive director of the NJDC, wrote to King, "Certainly, Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, must reject Farrakhan, and that is what we are calling upon GOP leaders to do."
He added, "We call upon you, as one of your party's leaders, to repudiate any alliance between the GOP and Louis Farrakhan."
Forman said he was writing "not as a partisan political activist, but as an American and as a Jew."
The letter touched off an acerbic and vicious exchange between the NJDC and King.
Jon Hymes, King's chief of staff, responded to Forman's letter "as an American and as a Jew." Accusing the NJDC of using the issue for its own "partisan political purposes," Hymes wrote that he deemed Forman's comments "as unworthy of the congressman's personal attention."
He called the NJDC's record "thoroughly shameful," charging that the group had remained silent on several key issues involving Farrakhan, including reports last year of possible cooperation between the Democratic National Committee and the Nation of Islam on voter registration.
"Very simply, your silence and consistent failure to try to exert influence within the Democratic Party has aided Farrakhan and helped him to grow stronger in recent years," Hymes wrote.
"This is an indelible stain on your organization and your own involvement in public policy matters," he wrote.
"I feel certain that knowledge of your sorry record would make virtually all members of the NJDC ashamed of their association with the group and its leadership."
The unusual exchange did not end there.
Exacerbating tensions, Hymes faxed his letter to reporters while sending Forman's copy through the mail. Forman shot back.
"I am writing to alert you to the fact that some lunatic has written a letter to me on Congressman King's stationery and signed the letter in your name," the NJDC leader wrote, with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
"This letter is full of ridiculous statements, sycophantic praise which would embarrass the most shameless public official, hysterical rantings and silly charges.
"Such a letter could only have been written by a naive, inexperienced, immature, emotionally unbalanced individual."
He added: "I wanted to alert you as soon as possible to this moron who is using your name and title to fire off asinine charges."
Hymes, after receiving the letter, said in an interview: "For him to take the time to hurl 13 childish insults at me, without taking the time to find any factual error in what I said, is really very sad because we take the issue very seriously here."
Responding to Hymes, Forman said in an interview: "The NJDC's record speaks for itself. We've condemned Farrakhan. We've worked within the Democratic Party to exclude Farrakhan from the political process and will continue to do so."
Behind the partisan squabbling, meanwhile, both Forman and Hymes said that the real issue is about denying Farrakhan credibility within the American political system.
On that matter, at least, they appeared to be on the same page.