A Leader Left Behind?
Monday, July 14, 2008
Few political figures have been more confounding than the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In four decades of public service, he has lived at the crossroads of inspiration and exasperation -- keeping hope alive for many and driving others crazy.
Last week, he managed to become what has eluded him during this historic presidential campaign: the center of attention. But not in a good way. During an unguarded moment on a Fox News set -- Jackson apparently thought the microphone was off -- he whispered to a fellow guest that he wanted to cut off Barack Obama's testicles, using coarser street vernacular. Obama's crime? The presumed Democratic presidential nominee had been talking up faith-based initiatives to help solve social problems and "talking down to black people."
When Jackson learned a storm was brewing, that his remarks would be aired, he apologized to Obama privately, held a news conference, and reiterated his pride that the junior Illinois senator was one victory away from being elected the first African American president. But the episode renewed questions about what Jackson has become in the sunset of his career and how he really feels about Obama and the kind of campaign he has run.
"It made me wonder if there was some personal jealousy," says Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin, who has written widely about race relations and inequality in America. "It must be hard for a generation of black men who came up in an era when nothing was easy to see this young man rise, almost effortlessly."
Jackson, now 66, can rightfully claim a pioneering role in that rise. His own two presidential campaigns, in 1984 and '88, laid the foundation for Obama's success during a period when black politicians were not given a prayer of winning a major party's nomination and most considered it folly to try.
When Jackson announced his 1988 bid, he was 46, as Obama is now, and the only Democrat in the field of six to have run for president before. At the outset, he led virtually every national poll of Democrats, a testament to the jet-setting crusades that enhanced his public stature. But few party leaders were willing to treat him like a front-runner. "For the presidency? No," said an incredulous Robert Strauss, the former Democratic national chairman. "It's an accepted fact that this country is not ready to vote a black man or woman for the presidency. . . . It's not fair, but it's the real world and he knows it. I'm not proud of this."
Jackson went on to finish second to Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for the nomination, racking up 11 contest victories and about 7 million votes. But perhaps the greatest legacy Jackson left from his two campaigns, according to some loyalists, was the opening up of the Democratic Party structure and the growth in black political participation: more candidates running for local office, more strategists, more field operatives, more fundraisers than ever before.
"He made it possible not just for blacks to sit at the black desk," observes Donna Brazile, Jackson's field director in 1984, "but to sit at every desk in American politics." Brazile herself went on to become the first African American to manage the campaign of a major party's nominee when she ran Al Gore's effort in 2000. Of Jackson, she says: "He is my political father."
Pioneers love to be acknowledged. When the Boston Celtics returned to their former glory this year, winning an NBA championship after a 22-year hiatus, you couldn't keep the franchise's legends away. And the team's current stars? They paid constant homage to Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird and the rest of the storied ballers who came before them.
Alas, politics is not sports. Jackson, whose ego is not insubstantial, would have relished a larger role in Obama's run. But for the most part, he has been relegated to the sidelines, promoting Obama's candidacy through radio interviews and editorial board sessions that he arranges himself.
While calling his relationship with Obama "quite close and very respectful," Jackson says in an interview that he has not been asked to campaign for Obama as a surrogate and has not been asked to campaign jointly with him. Asked if he would have a speaking part or any other formal role at the Democratic National Convention in August, as has been customary since the 1980s, Jackson says he does not know. He also says he does not know if he will play any formal role in the fall campaign, as he has in the past, traveling the country on behalf of the party and the ticket, registering voters and building turnout.
"I'm available to serve in any capacity that he defines that will help him," Jackson says.