Only two Julys ago, Jesse Jackson was the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination and the toast of the party's national convention in Atlanta after running what he called "a poor campaign with a rich message." It was Jackson who had given voice to the powerful issue of drugs, which every other presidential candidate followed.

In this sad summer of 1990, Jackson, while disclaiming any "attempt to defend the indefensible," has publicly signed on to the defense team of Washington Mayor Marion Barry and reduced himself to arguing unpersuasively on behalf of a judicial double standard for a discredited black mayor.

What has happened since Atlanta and 1988 has been a triumph of racial maturity in American politics. Last November, Virginia, the cradle of the Confederacy, chose as its governor the grandson of slaves, L. Douglas Wilder. On that same day, the majority white cities of New Haven, Durham and Seattle elected black mayors. Today as further evidence that whites will vote for blacks, a record 43 American cities are led by a black chief executive.

But that electoral harvest must be bittersweet for Jackson, whose offers to come to Virginia and campaign on his behalf Wilder turned down. Wilder did not hesitate to distinguish himself from Jackson with the formulation: "Jesse runs to inspire. I run to win."

In the United States of 1990, black elected politicians are wielding real power and making a real difference in the lives of real people. That Jackson will not be one of them is the consequence of his own mistaken decision not to seek an elected leadership office.

When Jackson turned down the challenge to run for mayor of Washington, it was said that the two-time presidential candidate was simply keeping his record spotless -- of never running for any office he had a realistic chance of winning. Now with his announcement that he will run for one of Washington's two "shadow" U.S. Senate positions, Jackson looks even less relevant. D.C. statehood is not going to pass even if Jackson, in that shadow role, is able to gain access to committee hearings and the Senate floor.

The ultimate political irony of 1990 could be the election of Jackson to that artificial position at the same time that former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt is being elected to a real seat in the U.S. Senate. Gantt, who in 1963 integrated Clemson University in South Carolina, is running against the Abominable No-Man himself -- Sen. Jesse Helms -- in North Carolina.

Gantt won the Democratic Senate nomination this June over a white opponent in a runoff primary of the sort that some states hold when no candidate wins an absolute majority in the first primary. As a presidential candidate in 1984 and in 1988, Jackson had demanded the abolition of all runoff primaries because, he argued, they were a conspiracy to prevent blacks from winning the nomination.

Now Gantt is running against Helms's 18-year record, which, according to the Democrat, has left North Carolina with the nation's highest infant mortality rate and lowest SAT scores. To win blue-collar voters from Helms, Gantt emphasizes that the conservative has consistently voted against the minimum wage and the popular "Meals on Wheels."

And what is the contribution to this effort of Jesse Jackson, allegedly a Gantt supporter? Here are Jackson's words, as pronounced on network TV: "For those who are for the arts, for liberal display of artistic expression, Harvey Gantt's campaign gives them an opportunity and a challenge. Will they ... rush in there with money, time and effort?"

Just what Gantt needed: to be tagged as the favorite son of New York and California artistic types. That's exactly what the people in Helms's campaign would love to do to him. So why is the most masterful wordsmith in American politics, Jesse Jackson, doing it for them? Sadly, the past two years have seen Jackson reduced from a leader of substance to a shadow candidate.