The prevailing wisdom among Democratic Party insiders is that Jesse L. Jackson can't win the presidential nomination, but will arrive at the Atlanta convention next summer with enough delegates to be a king maker -- or at least to extract concessions from the eventual nominee. Several party leaders have told us they believe Jackson hopes to be secretary of state.
Those close to Jackson, of course, insist he's deadly serious about his candidacy, and believes the arithmetic of the primaries can make him the nominee. According to them, Jackson is counting on the enthusiasm of his supporters and the fact that only about 14 percent of eligible voters turn out for primaries.
One of Jackson's major problems is Jewish support, without which any Democrat would be hard-pressed to get the nomination. But Jackson does not want to alienate his longstanding allies within the Arab American community. In a recent interview with the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun, Jackson made one of his first teetering steps across a tightrope he has stretched between these two political factions. Reaction was mixed among Jewish leaders. They are still wary of Jackson's reluctance in 1984 to shed the support of Black Muslim Louis Farrakhan, who has denounced Judaism as a "gutter religion."
But his overtures to the Jewish community do not seem to be hurting him among his Arab American friends. In March, he was the keynote speaker at a conference of Arab Americans.
More recently, Jackson and some 20 Arab-American leaders met in Washington's elegant Radisson Park Terrace Hotel for a closed-door birthday banquet in honor of the black Baptist candidate. After the roast tenderloin, a fancy cake was brought in with the frosted inscription, "Happy Birthday, Mr. President."
Among the dignitaries present for the birthday bash was Jean Abi Nader, president of the National Association of Arab Americans. The event was organized by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. It was a "small, private meeting," Zogby told our associate Stewart Harris. Jackson didn't return our calls for comment.
Jackson always has bucked political odds. His friends say he draws his inspiration from the Bible, which he interprets as a chronicle of the underprivileged battling for their birthright, their homeland and their self-determination.
But Jackson is also a canny politician and an opportunist who realizes that he must somehow curb his inflammatory populist rhetoric and come to terms with the privileged classes if he has a prayer of becoming president. With that in mind, he has been restructuring his campaign speeches to be perceived as for America rather than against it.
At the same time, Jackson must keep his enthusiastic followers fired up, so he can't tone down his rhetoric too much until the primaries have been won. The best he can do is soften it to the point where he doesn't actively offend Jewish voters and other mainstream Democrats.
Despite the fragile political tightrope that Jackson must tiptoe along, his charisma makes him a formidable presidential contender.