Juan Williams took three swings at the Jackson candidacy {Outlook, May 31} and missed each time. The first problem with his piece is that he asked himself the wrong questions when he sat down to write. The question he posed -- Is Jesse Jackson really good for blacks? -- is one of those pigeonholing exercises that infuriates blacks when whites do it to us. Jackson is a whole human being, and he is running to become Democratic candidate for all of America. Thus, the relevant questions about his candidacy are substantially broader than the one Williams raised.

He might have asked: Which candidacy is most valuable to America just now? A very good case can be made that it is Jackson's. While Williams asserts that the real purpose of campaigns is to select presidents, that is not their sole purpose. One of the other purposes of our ungodly long selection process is to put the important questions on the table; to ignite and inform political conversations across the country; to define the political agenda for the next four years. For a lot of Americans of all races, it is Jackson who, against the prevailing winds, insists on doing that most usefully by pounding away at the truly important questions.

Some of the issues Jackson is raising are America's morality at home and abroad and the need for a creative and courageous diplomacy with the Soviet Union in place of reflexive bellicosity. He has also issued calls for humane and farsighted self-interest to govern our relations with the Third World; for a true Good Neighbor policy to replace support for terrorism in Central America; for directing a rational share of America's intellectual and material resources toward the problems of our most vulnerable citizens and for having a due and enlightened regard for America's children.

The fact is that when Williams poses his question the way he does, a lot of white people across the country say: "Hey, I saw a candidate, not a black guy, and this candidate is good for me."

The second problem is that a couple of Williams' minor points are so flawed that they provide no support for the conclusion that Jackson is bad for blacks. It is quite an astonishing suggestion, for example, that since Jackson is such a successful politician among blacks, he should step aside to afford such "younger" politicians as Tom Bradley, Andy Young, Mickey Leland and Bill Gray a little time in the sun. It's startling to think of the longtime mayor of Los Angeles, the chairman of the House Budget Committee and Andy Young, an American household name for some years now, as needing a little more time outside Jesse's shade to flourish. If these men have more to offer blacks and America than does Jackson, then let them run against him and Biden and Dukakis and Gephardt, et al. Such an absurd suggestion would be made only to a black candidate. One wonders, for instance, how Ronald Reagan would have reacted to such a suggestion in 1979 from supporters of Bush and Kemp and Dole.

Williams also says scornfully that he did not know Jackson's policy positions until late in the '84 campaign, when he was hit with a blizzard of position papers "written by academics." (Do other candidates sit down and write their own campaign documents? And who should Jackson have gotten to write his papers -- investment bankers? K Street lobbyists?)

The fact is that if Williams didn't know what Jackson stood for during the campaign, he just wasn't paying attention. Jackson was dealing with the whole range of campaign issues from as early as the January all-Democrats debate at Dartmouth. His biting criticism later in the spring of Mondale and Hart as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee on defense and on domestic issues surely had substantive content and weight. By then his positions on the Middle East, the relationship with the Soviet Union and the Contadora process, among others, were all quite clear.

Now, finally, the third big whiff involves Williams' basic question: Is Jackson good for black people? He is apparently of the school that says blacks should approach white America with caution in mind and hat in hand. How else is one to read his implied advice to blacks to buy into a Democratic race that spans the entire spectrum from Dukakis on the left to Biden on the right (or is it Biden on the left to Dukakis on the right?). Jackson, Williams warns, may embolden these fellows and their party to rush pell mell toward the stony hearts and flinty spirits of the white males out there on the southern and western rim. And his continued candidacy might make them turn their backs on black needs and aspirations.

Well, I've got news for Williams. Paul Kirk and the Democratic National Committee did that years ago when Kirk stuck a finger in the eye of the black caucus on the DNC and announced that the party was deemphasizing "special interest groups." And, in case we blacks didn't get the message, Kirk staged a big fund-raising gala a few months ago featuring all the presidential candidates -- except Jesse Jackson.

Advice like that given by Williams always says: "Not this black. Not this time." It always warns black people not to stir things up because white people might continue to act as badly as they have in the past. It never imagines that white peoples' behavior may be improved.

In the '40s and '50s when Adam Powell fought his lonely crusade to desegregate the expenditure of taxpayers' money, people tried to ward him off. But he laid the foundation for Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When Martin Luther King Jr. used schoolchildren in his Birmingham crusade, Attorney General Robert Kennedy and the whole administration said that was a terrible thing to do. But that campaign made that whole civil rights act possible. Those men bludgeoned America into cultural changes that improved racial justice and the lives of all Americans, including blacks.

In addition to everything else he is doing, Jackson is changing the way Americans think about the presidency, blacks and themselves. He is broadening the vision of millions of white Americans, and he is raising the horizons of millions of black youngsters. Williams says Jackson can't win. Some people are saying Paul Simon can't win, and Simon is right to ignore them, just as Jackson is right to ignore similar advice.

Williams is surely wrong when he says Jackson is not good for blacks. He's good for us and for a lot of other people as well. And he's very good for the country.

The writer is Robinson professor of history at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He was a senior adviser to Jesse Jackson in his 1984 presidential campaign.