If only Farrakhan had seized the moment, instead of taking the entire afternoon

October 18, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

MY PLAN -- looking back, I still can't believe this -- was to watch the entire Louis Farrakhan speech. Yeah, from start to finish.

Why not? The gathering on the mall was an awesome, even moving, event that spoke eloquently of a belief in a better day. And I figured that Farrakhan, if he didn't lapse into an anti-Semitic rant, might have something important to say on the black American condition.

So, I sat down and watched. And watched. And watched.

And watched.

And watched.

OK, I did take a smallish break. During which I had dinner, caught a flick and read all of "War and Peace" -- in the original Russian.

When I got back to the tube, thinking it must be time for "Monday Night Football," Farrakhan was still talking.

At first, I thought maybe he had landed an Energizer battery commercial. But, no, this was live Farrakhan, in the longest, continuous on-stage performance since the last Grateful Dead concert.

Say what you will about the man, but he can go on. And on.

And on.

He's a minister, and this was like preaching to a congregation, except he had a pope-sized crowd of about 400,000 to a million.

(The park police, who put the number at 400,000, are famous for understatement. For example, they also estimated the Farrakhan speech at only 2 1/2 hours. Meanwhile, in a news conference yesterday, Farrakhan blamed white supremacists -- this is true -- for the low estimate and is planning to file a lawsuit. Who says he's not mainstream?)

Whatever the actual numbers, this many black men in one place could be, for much of white America, a nightmare come true. But the crowd turned the stereotype on its head. If the march accomplished nothing else, it did that. This peace-and-love gathering -- I saw a lot of peace signs flashed -- may be remembered as the black Woodstock.

What the day needed was a show-stopping finish.

Maya Angelou offered a poem, Stevie Wonder some brief words. Jesse Jackson tried, but he didn't have his heart in it. One of the great speakers of our day, Jackson was reduced to warm-up act. What's next for Jackson -- playing Vegas in a jumpsuit?

Here's where Jackson finds himself: Colin Powell is now the black presidential candidate of choice. And Farrakhan, a man who says he regularly visits a "mother ship" hovering in space to catch up with dead leader Elijah Muhammad, is threatening to take his place as the voice of voiceless black Americans.

So, it would be left to Farrakhan, who would deliver what must have been the longest speech in the history of TV, or at least the longest since Bill Clinton's keynote speech at the 1988 Democratic Convention. Clinton was booed off the stage that night. If anyone had been watching, it might have ended his career. Nobody booed Farrakhan, but I think I did hear a few people shouting "Louuuuu."

You'd think Farrakhan might have learned. The Gettysburg Address, probably the greatest speech in American history, lasted three minutes. The guy who talked before Lincoln went two hours, nearly as long Peter Angelos' ramble the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record.

And TV, as we know, is not exactly speech-friendly. It demands pictures of more than somebody standing in place for hours at a time. The medium demands action, and the speaking should be limited to sound-bite size. Farrakhan didn't give us a sound bite; he gave us a sound buffet.

Well, he had a crowd. He had a TV national audience. And he had a lot on his mind, from numerology -- when he started talking about the number 19, all I could hear was John Lennon in the background: number 9, number 9, number 9 -- to Masons, to the state of the black male. Yes, he rambled a bit. Having decided to stay away from bloodsucking Jews, a staple of his speeches, he may have lost his focus.

Farrakhan knew he had a big crowd; he figured he needed a big speech. Actually, he needed a great speech. More is not always more. The only lines I remember from the speech went something like this: Hang in there, I'll be finished soon.

The march was a great idea. And it turned out to be great for Farrakhan, who usually spends most of his TV time saying he's not a bigot. But a better speech might have put him over the top. If he'd said something about the only thing to fear is fear itself. Or if he'd mentioned a shining city on the hill.

On Aug. 28, 1963, standing at the other end of the mall from where Farrakhan was standing, Martin Luther King was told he had 7 minutes to talk. He took all of 19 to deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. Nobody complained that he took too long. Everyone was too busy weeping at the majesty of his words.

If anyone was weeping after Farrakhan's speech, it must have been the guy who had to transcribe the tape.

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