Baltimore writer Arthur J. Magida likes to say he's the only Jew to whom Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has ever apologized.
This usually gets laughs on the lecture circuit, where Magida finds it makes a nice punch line to his story about the first time he interviewed one of the Jewish community's premier antagonists. There they were, Magida and Farrakhan, two guys from the Bronx, sitting in a carpeted room in Farrakhan's home in Chicago separated by a round, cloth-covered table and a culture gap big enough to swallow a nation.
The minister, 63, was decked out in the Full Farrakhan -- salmon-colored suit, white shirt, bow tie, gold cuff links the size of walnuts. He talked and Magida listened. Farrakhan, who once sang calypso in Boston nightclubs billed as "The Charmer," was gracious, impeccably well-mannered. The interview went smoothly enough for about 45 minutes. Then Magida, on assignment for the Baltimore Jewish Times, asked this question: Why don't you apologize to Jews for the things you've been saying?
"He gave me about a 12-minute answer," says Magida, who just published "Prophet of Rage," the first Farrakhan biography. "And he started out very slow and evenly and built up his pace and his tone and got angrier and faster and more furious."
Eventually, he was pounding the table and shouting. Farrakhan's two aides sat by his side in silence. Magida waited out the storm as Farrakhan rode a crescendo of fresh indignation and ancient hatreds. Magida's tape recorder captured it:
"Jews got a hell of a nerve asking me to apologize," Farrakhan said. "Good God Almighty, that angers me. Jews are too arrogant, too proud of their power. They want everybody to bow down to them, and I ain't bowing down to nothin' or nobody but God. I'm not getting down on my knees. If I did, you know what Jews would tell me? Too little, too late
"I'm no dog," he bellowed. "You don't give me no little piece of meat on a hook. I'm not looking for nothing from Jews "
On he went. Magida, a soft-spoken man, eventually broke in with a related, but less incendiary question. The minister calmed down. The Charmer returned.
The interview went another 2 1/2 hours in relative tranquillity. Near the end of the session, Farrakhan told Magida he was not angry with him personally. He was angry with Jews, particularly organization leaders, who have asked him to apologize for his rhetoric. Then Farrakhan apologized to Magida for losing his temper and shouting.
Magida accepted, though he said he felt "extraordinarily uneasy" while Farrakhan was shouting at him. But he was not offended or angry. Interested, puzzled: How could such an apparently intelligent man say such things?
He left the interview wanting to know more.
Magida had a notion about making sense of Farrakhan. Where did he come from? What can we know about him? What's his motivation?
What a concept. Fathoming Farrakhan, whose actions and statements frequently seem orchestrated to defy explanation, has become a minor American industry. We've seen a river of magazine articles, newspaper profiles, television interviews, op-ed items. But no book-length biography until now.
"Prophet of Rage," published by Basic Books, offers a 264-page account of how Bronx-born Louis Eugene Walcott became Louis Farrakhan, how a choirboy raised during the Depression by a mother who worked as a domestic became a national symbol of hope, pride, hate, fear. Farrakhan is largely in the eye of the beholder.
In this case, the beholder is a 50-year-old Jewish man who lives in Mount Washington with his wife, Helen, and their three daughters. Magida grew up in the Bronx, Liberty, N.Y., and Scranton, Pa., where his father worked as a hospital administrator and then owner of a nursing home and medical supply store. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish home and is raising his children the same way.
After graduating from high school in Scranton, he earned a bachelor's degree in history from Marlboro College in Vermont and then went to work as a reporter for the Patriot in Harrisburg, Pa.
He's been writing and editing ever since, working as a speech writer for Ralph Nader, as an environmental reporter for the National Journal and as an editor for a Vermont-based publisher of books on Jewish spirituality. In 1983, he moved from Washington to Baltimore to write for the Jewish Times, a job he held until last year.
In between jobs, he earned master's degrees in history from Georgetown University and clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. Whatever reportorial, historical and clinical detachment Magida learned along the way came in handy as he worked on the Farrakhan portrait.
Before the first interview, Magida says, he was appalled by Farrakhan: "I was pretty much repelled by what I had heard about him. There wasn't anything redeeming about him as far as I knew." But Magida says he never had any intention of writing an anti-Farrakhan rant.