March 8, 2007 — -- 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.
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.