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A Leader Left Behind?
Jesse Jackson's voice sparked hope long before Barack Obama's rise to political stardom. Now it's his bitter words that resound, stirring a new debate.

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

If there is any tension about his role, any hurt over being left out, Jackson walks around it gingerly. Others do not. "Jesse is persona non grata in American politics," says Kevin Alexander Gray, who managed Jackson's successful South Carolina campaign in '88. The perception that Jackson is a polarizing force is widespread but wrongheaded, Gray adds, noting that even in South Carolina, which Jackson carried in '84 and '88, he wasn't invited to campaign for Obama. "If all these other people can stand next to Obama, why can't Jesse Jackson?"

Jackson sees Obama's ascension in evolutionary terms, he says. "He is running the last lap of a 54-year tag-team race," Jackson said, citing the 1954 Supreme Court ruling banning public school segregation, the creation of the Voting Rights Act and other milestones. "Man, there's excitement to see this in my lifetime. . . . If you're part of a team, whoever scores a touchdown, the victory goes to the team."

But when you suggest the team's quarterback should be castrated -- "locker-room trash talk," Jackson reiterates -- isn't it fair to question a team member's sincerity? Comedian John Witherspoon, in town for weekend performances at the Improv, suggested on the "Donnie Simpson Show" last week that envy had gotten the better of Jackson. "It was so stupid," Witherspoon speculated, "it might have been staged."

But staged for what purpose -- to put Jackson back in the spotlight or to help Obama further distance himself from Jackson? Witherspoon didn't exactly say, but Jackson has heard all of the theories, much to his annoyance. "Some of that talk is just people trying to construct concepts," he says, adding, "There's no conspiracy in this."

One concept that has been constructed is a generational divide in black leadership, something Jackson pooh-poohs. "This is not an old-versus-young showdown. That's trivial," he says.

However trivial it is, it has been a political story line -- and a subject of media fascination -- for 20 years. In 1989, the victories of L. Douglas Wilder in Virginia as the nation's first black governor and David Dinkins as New York's first black mayor were heralded as indications of a new style of black leadership emerging. Jackson complained at the time that commentators were trying to drive a wedge between him and Dinkins and Wilder, who were depicted as pragmatic politicians who weren't in the old anti-establishment mold.

A big part of Jackson's reputation was built on confrontation -- protesting government institutions, threatening boycotts and demanding that corporations be accountable and inclusive in awarding contracts and opportunities. Obama's experience as a rabble-rouser is not as extensive, nor does he have the instinct to use pressure first to force an outcome.

Obama seems most comfortable around his younger political peers, which include Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who has clashed with his father from time to time over language and tactics.

Jackson's concerns about Obama were prompted by two recent Obama speeches -- one in Ohio on expanding and strengthening faith-based social services and another in Chicago on Father's Day in which Obama implored fathers to "realize that responsibility does not end at conception."

Obama told reporters yesterday that Jackson had expressed his concerns about the latter speech privately, even before the Fox News mike episode. Obama said he was "not going to back down one bit" in his critique of the problem posed by so many African American children growing up without fathers in their lives.

"I told him that I absolutely believe we have structural inequalities in this country that have to be dealt with," Obama said, "which is why I have proposed making sure that health care is accessible for every American." But Obama added that it was not "an either/or proposition," that both approaches were needed -- personal responsibility and government intervention.

In the interview, Jackson says it is a question of emphasis. "Faith-based initiatives are inadequate on their best day to respond to the depth and breadth of our crisis," he says, pointing to crumbling public schools, nearly 1 million black men in prison, high unemployment in certain communities and other problems that he says require a systemic solution. "That's why when you speak of black male responsibility, that message is too narrowly focused to get the change that's needed." (Jackson himself took flak several years ago when it was revealed he had a child with a former staffer.)

Observing the back-and-forth, Georgetown's Sheryll Cashin is reminded of the Jesse Jackson who is fixed in her memory, the Jackson with the big Afro and determined disposition. "For me, metaphorically, Jesse Jackson never took off that dashiki," she says. "He has always been this civil rights voice." Cashin's new memoir, "The Agitator's Daughter," details the civil rights activism of her father, who founded an alternative Democratic Party in Alabama and ran for governor against George Wallace in 1970. John Logan Cashin Jr. and Jesse Louis Jackson are products of the same traditions.

"The soldiers from the movement, a lot of them lack the ability to be critical of the community because so much of their life has been challenging the forces against their community," Sheryll Cashin says. But it is a different time, which requires new thinking, she says.

"The black community needs more than ever for a self-reflection, places where we can talk seriously about our own responsibility to our children and the values we want for our children. We don't have enough places where we are brutally honest about how we parent or why it is that so few of us are married."

It is a dialogue that will continue, but probably without Jackson in the lead.

Recently in Chicago, there was a reunion of old Jackson campaign hands. Many reflected on how the nation was made ready to receive a Barack Obama. As a practical matter, some said, Jackson's efforts to remove winner-take-all primaries and establish a proportional system of awarding delegates helped Obama keep Sen. Hillary Clinton from overtaking him.

"Barack Obama didn't just come down on a beam of light from another planet," observes Gray. "Jesse is part of that history. Whatever else you say about Jesse, you can't deny him that."

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