Two Fronts in the Fight for Equality
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 1998; Page A1
ATHENS, Ohio Jesse L. Jackson came here to the foothills of Appalachia to do his thing, testifying and bearing witness in plain view of the television cameras. Weighing a third presidential campaign, the veteran civil rights activist has zeroed in on class conflict in America, and he brought his vision of a new poor people's campaign to this hardscrabble town just in time for the 2000 elections.
"We can build a coalition of conscience," he says to a group of jobless men and women, all white. "The stock class and the sweat class. Too many people live in isolation. We don't talk to one another but the problems are the same. The people of Appalachia don't have good drinking water, just like the people in Ford Heights."
There was something telling in Jackson's repeated rhetorical bows toward Ford Heights, a poor Chicago suburb where the drinking water is a peculiar shade of orange, a hue not found in nature. Ford Heights lies in the congressional district represented by Jackson's oldest son, Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and the Illinois Democrat, doggedly working Washington's bureaucracy, last year delivered $5.8 million in federal aid that will bring fresh drinking water to the suburb beginning next year.
Physically, Jackson Jr. is a smaller version of his athletically built father, confident and witty. And as orators, father and son share the same cadences, the same Baptist minister's flourishes and gestures, the same ability to connect with all ages and races. But the story of Ford Heights and its water problems the stuff of a stemwinder for Jackson Sr. and of delivering the goods for Jackson Jr. goes a long way to show what a difference a generation has made in the Jackson family and, more broadly, in the struggle for equality among black and white Americans.
The younger Jackson discovered the Ford Heights problem shortly after he was elected to office in 1995. He immediately began pressing his colleagues on Capitol Hill for money to fix the water system, even inviting some Republican lawmakers on a tour of Ford Heights. His staff poked around for grants, sizing up virtually every federal agency until finally stumbling onto a program offered by the Agriculture Department to provide clean drinking water to rural communities.
At first, his request was turned down. But he wrote letters and made phone calls, asking Agriculture officials to reconsider. They did, ruling finally that the poor and sparsely populated suburb meets the agency's definition of a rural community after all, even though it is only 20 minutes from downtown Chicago.
The foul-smelling, murky waters of Ford Heights cast a crystal reflection of two politicians, a famous father and his up-and-coming son. They are as strikingly different as they are alike. Both have liberal missions, but they attack on different fronts. Jackson Sr. roams the sky with a searchlight, picking off the biggest targets he can find. His son the congressman hovers low to the ground, doing the little things that often go undetected by radar and have never been his father's strong suit.
"The inside political role is different than the outside prophetic role," Jackson Sr. said in an interview. "Jesse Jr. chooses to be on the inside and that's fine. It's a big country and there's lots of work to be done. There's a role to play for both."
A decade after the restless 56-year-old Jackson last occupied the nation's center stage with his quixotic presidential campaign, aides say the politician/talk show host/author/presidential adviser is struggling somewhat to remain relevant to a public that largely admires him, but has never really known what to do with him. As he tries to sharpen his public profile, his 33-year-old son is carving out his own political image with strokes that are smaller, and perhaps surer, than his father's.
Stylistically, they are alter egos, the preacher and a pragmatist, the outsider and the insider. While Jackson Sr. pickets Wall Street and Hollywood as a self-appointed apostle for affirmative action, the younger Jackson's crusade is for construction of a third regional airport in the Chicago suburbs to help the stalled economy in his district.
The jet-setting father buzzes all over the place Africa one week, Appalachia the next. The son stays put, lobbying a House subcommittee to approve a regional airport or helping a poor suburb with an even poorer credit rating qualify for federal housing loans.
In his three years on Capitol Hill, Jackson Jr. has never missed a vote on the House floor. Among the accomplishments of which he is proudest is the installation of highway signs identifying a smattering of poor suburbs that have traditionally considered their communities neglected and overlooked.
The son, who as a teenager accompanied his famous father to Syria to retrieve a U.S. Navy pilot taken prisoner, now boasts of his dedication to his 600,000 constituents, an eclectic mix of blue-collar workers, poor blacks and well-off, conservative whites. "Since I've been elected I've spent almost every weekend at home in my district," he declares.
And if the father's pursuit of publicity leaves him somewhat out of focus, a highly public figure at once the nation's conscience and its caricature, his son earns praise for being just the opposite. Since his election, he and his aides say, he has held only four news conferences and he rejects nearly 400 invitations to speak each week. While Jackson Sr. publicly calibrates his next move leading up to the 2000 election, his son repeatedly says he has no interest in a nascent grass-roots campaign to be drafted as a candidate for Chicago mayor.
"Jackson Sr. is a tree-shaker," said Robert Borsage, a former adviser, repeating an old Jackson line. "Jackson Jr. is a jelly-maker," added Borsage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a Washington-based policy organization. "I think that's a conscious and subconscious decision on Junior's part. When you grow up under a big tree's shadow, you try to find the best spot for you to grow."
The comparisons invite Jackson Sr.'s critics to see in father and son a reverse version of Icarus and Daedalus: a father flying too high, burned up by the sun and his own ambition, while his son flies safely closer to the ground. But that, according to Borsage and others who know the two men, would be simplistic.
For one thing, they say, the younger Jackson encourages his father to soar and is perhaps the most outspoken advocate of a third presidential campaign. Mostly, they work in tandem. Aides for both say they are as close as a father and son can be.
Of his four children, Jackson Sr. says, Jesse Jr. is most like him and they talk almost every day. "And I think that may be underestimating it," Jackson Jr. says. "We've already talked three times today," he said one recent morning. "And it's not even 10:30."
The son prodded his father to shift the emphasis of his message from affirmative action to the divide that separates the poor of all colors from the wealthy. "Whether they are black or white, the language that everyone understands is economics," Jackson Jr. said. "I think Reverend Jackson is the best person to speak to that gap in our society, to provide the most jobs, the most health care and a livable wage to the greatest number of people."
Reminiscent of his father's populist presidential campaigns, the younger Jackson was approached by admirers both black and white, young and old as he toured his district with a reporter in March. And father and son pilfer each other's best material. In his tour of Appalachia last month, the elder Jackson repeatedly finished his speeches with the appeal, "Leave no American behind." His father, Jackson Jr. says with a laugh, stole the line from him.
Fundamentally, the difference is generational. One was born poor and black in the Jim Crow South and came of age when the pulpit was the place African Americans turned to for political leadership. The other was born while the father was marching in Selma his father almost gave his first son the name of that city into a life of relative privilege and expanded opportunities. Jackson Jr. attended prestigious preparatory schools, including St. Albans School for Boys, which Vice President Gore attended.
The younger Jackson graduated from seminary school and law school, married and moved into a job as national field director for his father's Rainbow/Push Coalition in Chicago. When Rep. Mel Reynolds (D) was convicted of having sex with an underage campaign worker, Jackson jumped into the crowded race to succeed him.
It was a long shot. Organized labor, the state Democratic Party and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley endorsed Emil Jones Jr., the state Senate leader. But using a high-tech campaign that enabled him to target voters, Jackson pulled off the upset in his first bid for elected office.
"Certainly Congressman Jackson is more inclined to do things the way his generation does things with computers, for instance," said Ron Lester, a Democratic pollster who worked on the younger Jackson's campaign and knows both father and son.
"But also, just like his father, he is a phenomenal campaigner. The special election was held on a snowy, cold day in March and still voters turned out to vote. They were energized and charged up by his candidacy. Now, who else do we know that has that kind of ability?"
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company