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If Jackson Divides the Democrats, He Could End Up a Black George Wallace

Can Jesse Jackson please his constituency without offending the party?

Jesse Jackson, Presidential Campaign

Politician Jesse Jackson delivers a speech during his 1984 presidential campaign in Chicago, Illinois. 1984

David Hume Kennerly/Getty

WASHINGTON D.C.

Listening to Jesse Jackson’s rich metaphors, watching him charm and inspire crowds, I was reminded of someone from the political past, but I couldn’t figure out who. Finally, it came to me – George Wallace.

Both Jackson and Wallace are political outsiders who invaded the world of orthodox presidential politics and shook up conventional assumptions. They were able to do that because both are brilliant at the lost art of American politics – speaking to common folk in plain and forceful language. In some ways, of course, the comparison is terribly unfair. Jackson speaks for progressive values and racial harmony, the rainbow of many colors, while Wallace was the voice of racist resentment. One preaches hope; the other peddled hatred.

But the comparison poses the right question about Jesse Jackson’s extraordinary campaign of 1984, for he faces a dilemma similar to Wallace’s. The issue is whether Jesse can translate his flash and charisma into a lasting position of influence, whether he is smart enough to rise above his limitations and play in the big leagues of national politics. In short, can Jesse Jackson become something more than a black version of George Wallace?

Wallace threw a fright into the regular order of presidential politics in 1968 and 1972, providing a voice of protest for the millions who felt ignored and abused. Jesse Jackson, likewise, has aroused millions of disfranchised Americans – mainly poor blacks who have never voted before – and inspired them to enter the electoral process. Yet, like George Wallace, Jesse Jackson has a disabling stain of character that may well subvert the positive impact he could have on American politics in the future.

Wallace was never able to grasp genuine political power because everyone in the Democratic party understood that the core of his appeal was antiblack sentiment In a less obvious sense, Jesse Jackson now has a similar problem: the whiff of anti-Semitism in his public persona. It contradicts everything he is trying to do and may prove fatal to his long-term political prospects if he does not deal with it.

***

EARLY ON SUNDAY MORNING, THE REVEREND Jackson was in the pulpit of the White Rock Baptist Church on Philadelphia’s north side, preaching and campaigning with the blend of jive talk and Biblical metaphor that makes him so compelling.

“Stop the killing abroad and start the healing at home.”

“It’s cheaper to feed the child than to jail the man.”

“America is not one big piece of cloth. America is a quilt with many different colors and textures, all patched together. The genius of our country is that everybody fits in.”

“I can talk to the superpowers. I’ve been talking to the Superpower all my life.”

Everyone in the church smiled, laughed or chanted in assent. “That’s right Amen.” In the pulpit, Jackson is irresistible, a master of the melodramatic cadences of the black preacher, with his artful repetition and eloquent allusions. “If you want someone who will speak for the poor,” he booms, “here am I. Send me. If you want one who believes in peace and lives accordingly, here am I. Send me.”

None of this eloquence, of course, makes very good headlines, and the lasting impression Jackson leaves among unsympathetic white voters is, in all probability, of a candidate with a glib tongue and not much else. This is wrong and unfair. There is actually a rather high quotient of substance – real issues and well-developed positions – in Jesse Jackson’s rhetoric, but it’s packaged for the common people, not for the media.

Like Wallace before him, Jackson understands that modern political communication – dominated, as it is, by television images, polling and media consultants – has lost the power to speak plainly and arouse deeper emotions in voters. Jackson is a throwback to that era when politics and political rallies were a principal form of entertainment in America. Following him from church to church, one is struck by the joy and good feeling he produces. People came expecting to be aroused and entertained, and Jackson did not disappoint them. There is a lesson in this for other politicians.

“The politicians are speaking to the media and not to the people,” Jackson explained in an interview. “They put out an eleven-page speech with a six-point program, and they then worry about whether the media are inspired by it They’re not talking to ordinary people. I’m trying to talk about issues so people can understand, issues that fly from the heart.”

At another church, he lectured the congregation on industrial policy. Jackson didn’t sound much like Walter Mondale or Gary Hart on that subject. He talked about honeybees.

“Our industrial leaders are very intelligent, but they’re greedy, and they’re not as smart as the honeybee,” he began. “A honeybee finds a flower and gets its nectar and gets all excited, but it drops some pollen right back there in the flower. The honeybee doesn’t have a brain, but it knows if it doesn’t drop some pollen, the flowers will die, and pretty soon, it will die. These corporations are getting their nectar from America – their consumers, their loans, their tax breaks – and they’re dropping their pollen in South Africa and Taiwan, and they’re killing American jobs. We must demand that American corporations have as much sense as a honeybee.”

In one outrageous metaphor, Jackson defines the emotional content that underlies the industrial-policy debate. He also suggests a solution. He doesn’t go into laborious detail, but he ticks off a few potential remedies – laws to require prior notice to workers before a factory is closed; first options for workers to buy the factory and operate it under employee ownership; tougher negotiations with corporations seeking federal bailouts to ensure that American jobs are preserved. The audience understands.

Jesse Jackson sounds authentic to the poorest of the poor, because that’s where he came from himself. His mother was a cleaning woman in Greenville, South Carolina. His father lived next door, but he never officially acknowledged his paternity. On campaign trips, Jackson frequently spends the night in public-housing projects, testifying that he, too, lived in “the project” as a boy. “Jesus was born in a slum, but the slum wasn’t born in Jesus,” he adds.

In primary after primary, the black turnout has been stunning. It doubled in several Southern states and even exceeded white voter turnout In New York, Jackson won an estimated eighty percent of the black vote and about seventy-five percent in Pennsylvania. He may go to San Francisco with as many as 250 delegates – far more than anyone predicted six months ago.

But the rainbow that Jesse Jackson promised has not yet appeared. In New York, he drew an estimated seven percent of the white vote; in Pennsylvania, only five percent His vision of a progressive alliance, uniting left-liberal whites, Hispanics, blacks and other alienated groups, simply hasn’t developed at the polls, despite the natural harmony of their interests.

One probable explanation is that Jackson is still not taken seriously as a political leader. Even among those who vote for him in the primaries, only seven or eight percent think he stands the best chance of bearing Ronald Reagan. If black voters are discounting his prospects so strongly, then others are probably even more skeptical.

There is another, more obvious explanation: Otherwise sympathetic whites have been repelled by Jackson’s “Hymie” talk and by the frightening anti-Semitic rhetoric from Black Muslim minister (and Jackson supporter) Louis Farrakhan. These have created a deep and perhaps permanent scar in Jackson’s public reputation that goes much deeper than the alarm felt by Jews; there is a basic contradiction between Jackson’s rhetoric of hope and brotherhood and the ancient intolerance expressed by him and Farrakhan.

Jackson’s failure to quickly deliver an unequivocal denunciation has reflected adversely upon him. Among his circle of advisers, some insist that Jackson’s inaction demonstrates not his true character but his inexperience, claiming he simply hasn’t grasped the dimensions of the controversy. Jackson needs to extinguish it once and for all with a frank testimonial of his own values. Short of that, Jesse’s rainbow will be permanently shadowed.

***

LOOKING BACK, IT IS NOT CLEAR that George Wallace ever knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish in national politics, aside from scaring the hell out of the Democratic establishment. Jesse Jackson wants much more. He yearns to become a permanent political force who can take his place at the inner councils, a responsible power broker and maybe even a serious contender for high office someday. He is only forty-two years old, which gives him a wide horizon upon which to imagine his own future.

Jackson’s ambitions, though never stated so directly, are obvious when he talks about what he hopes to accomplish at the Democratic convention in San Francisco. The party’s managers are very nervous about that question, fearful that Jackson will stage the kind of theatrical confrontation he employed as a young insurgent a decade ago. They know that the Democratic nominee must come to terms with Jackson, because his active campaigning for the ticket this fall will be crucial for producing a huge turnout of new black voters. If Jackson’s terms are too outrageous, the bargaining might be counterproductive.

That will be the dilemma for whoever gets the nomination. Jackson’s dilemma is the same thing turned inside out: In order to demonstrate strength and steadfastness to his followers, Jackson must win some concessions from the Democratic leaders on behalf of his constituency. But if he reaches too far, demanding the impossible, he’ll become merely disruptive – a permanent outsider, like George Wallace. It’s a delicate proposition and will be a fair test of Jackson’s political savvy: If he maneuvers successfully through the next two months, then he will probably retain considerable influence, whether party leaders like it or not.

The candidate himself seems sensitive to these risks. At the convention, “my role would be to expand our party, not to divide it,” Jackson says. “My role would be to redeem and reconcile our party, not to destroy it. People who keep seeing me in the confrontational role are dealing with a stereotype, drawing a straw man that’s not me.”

Jackson’s advisers, led by a brainy young political scientist named Ron Walters, are presently translating the candidate’s agenda into tangible declarations that will be presented at the Democratic platform hearings. “My commitment is fairly broad and obvious,” says Jackson. “I’m for peace abroad and social justice at home….Will Jesse Jackson make a big floor fight? Will he make demands that would make the candidate jump off the cliff? No. I will be clear, and I will represent the demands of the rainbow coalition, but I don’t see that as an angry confrontation. There are many areas where all our interests converge, and I think that the more problems we resolve before the convention, the better. Most of these issues can be negotiated and settled beforehand.”

The principal item on Jackson’s list is the introduction of political reforms that would greatly improve the chances of minority candidates’ winning state and local offices. Ultimately, these would influence future presidential nominations as well. One of Jackson’s strongest contributions to the political dialogue this season has been to educate everyone on the enduring inequities of election rules – barriers that make it much more difficult for minority candidates to win, even when there are large concentrations of minority voters. One such impediment is the runoff primary, still used in nine states and in New York City, which makes it easier for established political forces to coalesce against an outside challenger – for instance, a black, a Hispanic or a woman. Another is the malapportionment that’s been built in to the presidential nominating system, cheating minority candidates like Jackson out of their fair share of delegates.

Such structural reform is the one issue on which Jackson cannot yield. But there is no reason why, for instance, Walter Mondale could not agree to them. Gary Hart has already endorsed Jackson’s position on electoral reform, and Mondale has likewise agreed that he opposes runoff primaries where they are shown to be discriminatory. This will no doubt make some white Southerners angry but would still be a beneficial trade-off for any Democratic nominee: potentially greater black support versus the loss of some conservatives who are probably Reagan voters anyway.

Some of Jackson’s positions, like reducing our bloated troop commitments to Europe and Japan, are simply too advanced for Mondale and Hart. My impression is that Jackson won’t push such issues to the point of stark conflict. But I suspect he will insist on a new look at American priorities. If Jackson can use his new leverage to move the Democratic party toward a more honest statement of war-and-peace priorities, it will be a worthy struggle. Conventional wisdom, of course, holds that Democrats must support the military spending splurge, lest they be accused of weakness. But in the crisis-torn world of the present day, this deserves to be decided as a matter of deep principle, not political advantage. Besides, if American voters want another four years of hawkish belligerence and obscene military budgets, they will surely elect Reagan over any pale Democratic imitation.

Jackson has been trying to goad Mondale and Hart to confront the toughest question they would face, if elected: If a new Democratic president wants to spend billions of dollars rebuilding America’s roads, bridges, schools and basic industries, where will the money come from? Jackson has an answer – cut the defense budget and raise taxes. “We need a plan and a policy to end slums and revitalize cities and put America back to work,” Jackson says, “but you can’t do that and keep on allowing the military budget to go up. We’ve got a war budget in peacetime. Hart and Mondale are not as bad as Reagan, but they’re going in the same direction. There’s no evidence from either of them of a new direction on our budget priorities.”

Another legitimate grievance of Jackson’s is America’s opaque view of the Third World and its people. “Hart and Mondale never mention Asia,” he says. “They never talk about the African drought or the Haitians in concentration camps in Miami and Brooklyn. Leaders must see the whole world. We must see the world as it is. The issue of South Africa has religious and moral implications we must confront. It undercuts our credibility as a nation to ignore these issues.”

For his own part, Jackson has moderated his posture on certain volatile issues – particularly the Middle East. For some years, he has identified himself with the Palestinian cause, touring Arab nations and meeting with PLO leader Yasir Arafat. This year, he’s insisting upon “mutual recognition” of Israel by the hostile Arab governments as part of a Palestinian settlement.

“All of us want the same thing – peace in the Middle East,” Jackson says. “It’s a question of strategy. Mondale and Hart have painted themselves into a comer by pandering to Israeli concerns about moving our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, when even many Israelis are opposed to that. That’s a diversion that doesn’t contribute anything. We’ve got to spend more time trying to get the Arabs to stop the onerous war against Israel, rather than just selling more arms to both sides. That’s got to be done with negotiation. We’ve got to work out some sort of mutual recognition.”

This sort of talk does not sound like a man bent on creating a dramatic showdown at San Francisco. It sounds more like a young politician who sees a future for himself, who’d like to deliver a memorable speech at the convention hall that would ignite the party and send the troops marching off to victory in the fall.

If that happens, Jesse Jackson’s political influence will be secure for the future. If Jackson’s candidacy produces only the kind of conflict and disunity that will help re-elect Ronald Reagan, then he will lose his stature. If that were to happen, Jesse Jackson really would be remembered as just a different version of George Wallace.

In This Article: Coverwall

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