At age 73, Minister Louis Farrakhan is watching one of the 2008 presidential candidates in particular with a keen eye: Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
"I like him very much. I like him, he has a fresh approach," the Nation of Islam's leader said. "And I'm fearful, because there's a structure in our government that no matter who sits in the seat of power, there are forces that one has to contend with if one is able to attract the masses of their votes. Barack Obama is doing quite well."
Farrakhan said that if Obama was avoiding controversial black leaders like himself, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rev. Jesse Jackson for fear of alienating white voters it would be an acceptable price to pay for an Obama victory.
"If avoiding me would help him to become president, I'd be glad to stay in the background, because of the taint that's on the minister," he said.
But, he added, "I haven't made myself available to him … [and] he hasn't made himself available to me."
As for the controversy over Obama's early Muslim education, Farrakhan said that, if anything, it should help him rather than hurt him.
"There's not a paper that you pick up today that doesn't have some reference to a Muslim or Islam, whether it's radical or secular or this or that," he said. "So when a man gets into the presidency who has some appreciation for the culture of Islam as well as the culture of Christianity and is respectful of the Jewish culture, that man has a heck of a chance to heal wounds and to bring people together."
As for the others in the presidential pool, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former Republican New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Farrakhan said that "Mrs. Clinton is formidable" but can't match Obama's appeal to young people, and "Giuliani … could parade every black person that he knows in front of black people -- he'll have a difficult time."
These days Farrakhan doesn't know how many more sermons he has to preach.
The Nation of Islam's leader for the last 30 years is being treated for prostate and colon cancer. But he was in a conciliatory mood two weeks ago at the annual Savior's Day service that marks the birthday of the Nation of Islam's founder, Wallace Fard.
"Christians and Muslims, we have to break down these artificial divisions that divide us and come together as a family," he said that day.
It seems that Farrakhan has moderated with age -- even though he still refuses to recant some of his most inflammatory remarks.
"I can never, ever regret speaking the truth," he told "Nightline." "But the way I speak truth, the passion I have for the truth that I speak can sometimes get in the way of people hearing what I have to say. That's all part of my growth and development. So I'm not today what I was, but I'm hoping that the language that I use will get past yesterday's barriers, and that I will be more clear and understood."
In a conversation at his home in Chicago, "Nightline" learned that Farrakhan believes Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., whom he likes "very much," may have a real shot at the presidency. But "Nightline" also learned the minister maintains some extremely controversial positions -- like a firm opposition to interracial marriage.
A Career Marked by Controversy
Farrakhan insists he wants to "get past yesterday's barriers," but some would say that he is responsible for erecting those same barriers many years ago.
The son of Caribbean immigrants, he was born Louis Eugene Walcott in 1933. After hearing Fard's successor, Elijah Mohammad, who led the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975, Farrakhan converted to this variant of Islam at the age of 22.
At the time, he was a calypso musician -- called the Charmer. Soon after his conversion, he gave up music to focus on drawing attention to the discord that he says exists between black and white America.
Farrakhan became leader of the Nation of Islam in 1977, and since then he's inflamed many -- accusing whites of being devils created by an evil scientist, describing Judaism as a dirty religion and referring to the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler as "wickedly great."
Particularly with his comments about Hitler, he insists the outrage results from a simple semantic misunderstanding.
"I was not wrong: 'Great' is not synonymous with 'good' except in colloquial language. Babylon was great but wasn't good," he said. "I say the man was wicked, but he was so great that you're still talking about him 50 years later. If he didn't make an impact on Jewish people and an impact on the world, why are you still referring to him, why are you still making movies about him."
"Nightline" asked Farrakhan if he still holds to those beliefs. Though he stands by the statements themselves, he maintains that he has been gravely misunderstood.
"If we look at the behavior of white people in their relationship to the darker people of the world, we couldn't say they acted as angels. They acted quite the contrary," he said. "But we're in a time of enlightenment now."
And that, he said, is why he needs to clarify some of his positions.
"Farrakhan is not anti-white, Farrakhan is not anti-Semitic, Farrakhan is not anti-American, Farrakhan is not, not anti-gay," Farrakhan insisted. "Farrakhan is pro black, and believe me, I would be fool not to be pro the country in which I'm born and nurtured and have grown."
A Vision for Black America
While Farrakhan acknowledged that he has seen a lot of change in his tenure as the leader of the Nation of Islam, he remains wary of what may seem like obvious signs of progress. Beneath that surface success, he said, there lies a less-rosy reality.
"We have more black millionaires then we've ever had," he said. "We have more political clout, in terms of blacks in state legislatures, city councils, black mayors, black sheriffs. And on the surface that looks wonderful, because we have to say that to a degree we've made progress.
"But you don't judge progress by the few, you judge progress by the masses," he added. "And the masses of our people are not going forward, they're slipping further and further behind."
Part of the solution to these endemic problems, Farrakhan argued, is for blacks to remain distinct and detached from other races. He even said he would forbid interracial marriage, if he could.
"Our women don't have adequate men," he said. "So I want the black men to marry the black woman. I want the white woman to marry the white man."
Miscegenation, he said, is "unnatural." And moreover, it is too soon, since some very ugly racial attitudes were predominant.
"There was a time in America just a few short years ago when we could be lynched for just looking under a white woman's dress that was on a clothes line," he said, laughing, "much less trying to get sexually intimate with a white woman. So that history is right with us."
A Parting Shot
"Certainly, I'm very aware of my mortality, and I'm very aware that I have fewer years in front of me than behind me," he said.
Though he wishes some people had not misunderstood some of his statements over the years, he remains recalcitrant -- no apologies, no regrets, no recantations.
"I said to some of the groups that have quote-unquote been offended by my words, 'Come, let's sit down and reason together,'" he said. "Show me where what I said was wrong. I can correct the manner of my delivery, that I can regret. But the words, if they're true, I would be a hypocrite to back down on the truth that I spoke."