Jesse L. Jackson, who has never met a news story he didn't want to be part of, is going to find out that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
For a man who views himself as a presidential contender, he is acting very unpresidential. He seems much more interested in fanning the flames of racism than quieting them, in heating up the rhetoric surrounding Marion Barry's trial than cooling it, and in playing to the paranoia that festers in the black community than in playing to the strength and decency that flourishes in it every day.
The law-abiding black men and women in this city who play by the rules and who are sickened at the spectacle of Barry smoking crack in a hotel room don't need the racist demagogues who are trying to get a piece of the limelight by wrapping themselves around the star of this horror show. What they need are leaders who can rise above the sleaze and project an image of responsible leadership that mirrors the responsible black community. They don't need shameless self-promoters who spew racist venom to keep themselves on the evening news.
These hatemongers reinforce every pernicious stereotype that bigots have about blacks. Marion Barry has already done enough of that, without any help from the fringe ministers who are trying to get their own publicity by rallying to his cause and running around town talking about white conspiracies to get black public officials.
It wasn't any white conspiracy that was smoking crack in that hotel room. Nobody put a gun to Barry's head and forced him to do it -- and in fact it was his practiced puffing that gave such credibility to all of the previous testimony pointing to a long acquaintance with drugs.
If a white public official had been flaunting the kind of lifestyle we've been hearing about on the witness stand for more than a week, he would have had a chance to star in an FBI video too. Up to now, it should be remembered, the two other most notorious FBI movies -- the Abscam video and the John DeLorean video -- starred whites.
Some of the reaction against the Justice Department, particularly on the part of people who were close to the mayor or those whom he put on the city payroll, is understandable. Some of the anger people feel at Barry they are directing elsewhere, perhaps because it is simply too painful to face up to the magnitude of his betrayal.
But where are the healers? Where are the leaders who are supposed to be helping the city heal its wounds?
If they are out there, they don't know how to get the ink or the TV time. The masters of that art are Jesse Jackson and the fringe ministers, and, of course, Marion Barry, who is charging all over town giving new meaning to the term loose cannon. A public relations executive for one of the city's top hotels joked the other day that when hotel managers hear the mayor is coming they reach for their crisis management manual.
What we are seeing is a bizarre -- and highly inflammatory situation -- in which Barry is using ministers such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Imani Temple Bishop George Augustus Stallings Jr. to spread the poisonous notion that he is a victim of a white conspiracy. And, of course, they are using him to prove to their flock that there is a white conspiracy. Thus, Stalling tells his followers that Barry's on trial now because "he is too smart, too intelligent and too black."
If he was so smart, one might ask, how on earth did he get in such a mess? But that kind of logic doesn't seem to bother people like Stallings who find it suits their purpose more to fling accusations of racism than to face the profound shortcomings of His Honor, the victim.
Enter Jackson, at Sunday's Metropolitan Baptist Church service. He compared the investigation into Barry with Soviet police surveillance and with federal investigations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Walter E. Fauntroy and New York Mayor David Dinkins. Jackson said the community is "threatened by what the government has done." He declared the judge's refusal to let Farrakhan and Stallings into the Barry trial unconstitutional. Barry has said the exclusion is "like in Nazi Germany."
"This trial is not just about some alleged criminal act on the part of Marion Barry," Barry said. "It's a larger issue than that."
Barry wants it to be about racism because that's his hope of getting off. Jackson and the other publicity seekers want it to be about racism too, because that's their meal ticket.
It isn't. It's about alleged criminal acts on the part of Marion Barry. But the most visible black leaders in this drama have used it to further poison race relations -- and that's something no one should forget when looking at Jesse Jackson's presidential re'sume'.