Gail Sheehy, Vanity Fair's correspondent in the psyches of presidential candidates, has taken the measure of the Democratic Party's statistical front-runner: "Behind his tropism for the limelight, underneath all the braggadocio that is mistaken for arrogance, lies Jesse Louis Jackson's greatest longing in life -- the lust for legitimacy."

Because Jackson was born out of wedlock, this observation has layers of meaning. Sheehy's January profile, not astonishingly, sees the child as father to the man. "He was a big, clumsy boy, pigeon-toed, and he stuttered." He was forbidden to play with his half-brothers, the legitimate sons of his natural father, Noah Robinson. He felt shame.

"Those who suffer shame as children often cover it up with false superiority," Sheehy tells us. "A sense of shame drives some people to build an inflated self-image through the pursuit of fame or excessive amounts of money, hoping to convince themselves of their lovability." When Jackson leads his audiences in the I am somebody! chant, the cry is intensely personal.

Sounds plausible, though Jackson among presidential candidates is hardly unique in this respect; he's just black. Nobody asked, but Sheehy believes Jackson's undisciplined temperament makes him unsuited to be president. In the Oval Office he would be "a caged bird." More interesting is her suspicion that on some level he's not even interested. The public attention of the campaign trail, and not the office itself, she suggests, is what fulfills Jackson's deepest longing.

"The Power or the Glory?" also probes two of Jackson's most troubling relationships: with Martin Luther King Jr. and with half-brother Noah Robinson Jr., who is "currently involved in a black gangland murder investigation." This long essay follows a perceptive Gary Hart postmortem and a failed effort to understand what makes Michael Dukakis tick. Sheehy's acumen seems to be in direct proportion to the eccentricity of her subject.

Speaking of which, in the same issue, Peter Boyer presents Dan Rather at his most bizarre -- tightly wound, spacey, combustible and not long, it would seem, for his anchor desk. Vanity Fair has become the psychiatric couch of the rich and famous.

Coke Is It Did the CIA arrange for the feds to look the other way when planes returned from weapons runs to Central America carrying cocaine? This is one of the great unconfirmed suspicions of the Iran-contra affair, and a few dogged souls are still trying to assemble the evidence. Leslie Cockburn is one of them; her findings -- drawing on research conducted under the auspices of CBS News -- appear in Granta's latest issue (No. 22, undated).

Cockburn's sources are pilots who in 1984-86 were ferrying arms and ammunition to the contras under the distinct if undocumented impression that their operations had the blessing of Vice President Bush. According to one, the cocaine traffic was no afterthought to the supply program; drug profits "could buy much larger and better and more sophisticated weapons, and it was unaccounted-for cash." Another pilot reports that he was granted clearance in the dead of night to land his plane -- loaded with 25,000 pounds of marijuana -- at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida.

Remarkable stuff if true, and not the usual fare of literary magazines. This issue of Granta also offers a charming novella by Hanif ("My Beautiful Laundrette") Kureishi and a chilling account by Wycliffe Kato, Idi Amin's civil aviation chief, of his hairsbreadth escape from torture and execution in the ex-dictator's Uganda.

The Last Word Another superb magazine with a literary patina is giving nonfiction prose the respect and space it deserves: Zyzzyva, a crisply designed quarterly of West Coast writing and art. Most provocative in the winter issue is an essay by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In an excerpt from his next book, Geertz examines the plight of the modern ethnographer -- and, by inference, of other kinds of social observers, including journalists.

After "a few years, now and again, scuffling about with cattle herders or yam gardeners," he writes, the scholar returns to spend "a lifetime lecturing to classes and arguing with colleagues," all the while feeling "a pervasive nervousness about the whole business of claiming to explain enigmatical others." Today's deconstructionist academic fashions, which encourage self-doubt about the truth and meaning of words, only make matters worse.

Geertz ends with determined optimism that his discipline still has its place. "The next necessary thing," he writes, "is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where, tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other's way."

A second reason to own this issue: the extraordinary photographs of John Gutmann. The ones here, dating from the 1930s, are "homage to a master whose work continues to unfold," in editor Howard Junker's words. For a year's subscription, send $20 to Zyzzyva, 41 Sutter St., Suite 1400, San Francisco Calif. 94104.

Nouvelle Cuisine According to Food & Wine's January issue, cooking is going back to basics in 1988: "It has started to click in people's minds that it is more difficult to impress someone with a perfectly cooked piece of fish in a light vinaigrette than it is to stuff that same fish with a mousseline, entomb it in puff pastry and set it in a moat of two different-colored sauces." But surely the magazine will never take this indubitable truth to heart, for it is tantamount to a declaration of irrelevance.