Leave it to Jesse. He gives new meaning to the old American hot dog. When invented by sports-food caterer Harry M. Stevens (that was about 1905, the great philologist, Mr. Mencken, tells us), "hot dogs" quickly took the place of the old "wienies" in American affection.

They've never been much to boast about from a gourmet standpoint. They aren't really nourishing, either. But they do pop and sizzle and, when appropriately coated with a spicy mustard, they gain a certain piquant taste. And, in typical American fashion, they are fast to prepare, to consume and to be forgotten. You don't usually find many people exclaiming, "What a wonderful hot dog dinner I ate last night." Still, people keep eating them, so there must be something to them.

They have another all-American characteristic: They endure.

So, hot dog lovers, does the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Just when politics lies as frozen as the dead-of-winter soil these mid-February days, when most people sensibly want to forget all the petty machinations that make up our political process, along comes Jesse, popping and sizzling and bearing a blowtorch.

He's the Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of Democratic Party politics. He's going to burn them one way or another. If the Democratic political soil, to continue the metaphor, lies scorched and fallow for a generation to follow, well, at least he gets the attention and the credit. And attention seems to be what most turns Jesse on these days.

Not since Nero has a public figure so relished igniting fires and watching the flames rise while the great temples burn.

Last week was a classic in the continuing saga of Jackson's public search for his proper political role -- in or out of the Democratic Party.

There he was, flat on his back in a hospital, summoning reporters for exclusive interviews.

First, to Juan Williams of The Washington Post, he was in a threatening mood. He blasted the Democrats' new party chairman, Paul G. Kirk Jr., charged that party leaders were seeking to win back white male voters by "proving they can be tough on blacks" and raised the threat of leading blacks away from the Democratic fold. Blacks, he said, speaking for them all, should "reassess their loyalty to the Democratic Party."

That little bonfire quickly threatened to spread into a conflagration. Naturally, it produced the predictable reaction. Prominent Democrats began voicing in public what they long have said in private: "Take off, Jesse."

When that seemed about to roar out of control, Jackson initiated another interview, making himself available to The New York Times.

This time, still hospitalized, he was in a conciliatory mood when he talked to Phil Gailey of The Times. He had been misunderstood, he said. It was "unfortunate." He wanted to work with Democratic leaders to resolve differences. Confrontation was not his game.

"My struggle is to be understood," Gailey quoted Jackson as saying. "Lord, I've been trying so hard to make sense."

All this follows the familiar Jackson script. This time, though, he may have gone too far. Growing numbers of influential Democrats are fed up with Jackson's repeated assaults and the subsequent assertions of being "misunderstood." They are prepared to call his bluff, if that's what it is, and tell Jackson to leave and good riddance.

Just when the bitter, destructive fight over picking Kirk as the new party chairman was over, the one thing that many adherents of varying factions agreed on involved Jackson. The story quickly made the rounds of party people, some of whom swear it to be true even if it's apocryphal (truth is an elusive commodity in such matters), that Jackson had warned Kirk at a reception that he might have to form a third party and Kirk replied, "Go right ahead, Reverend."

True or not, the reaction to that story among Democrats I spoke to immediately afterward was revealing. To some, that was the most encouraging news for their party's future that they had heard in months.

The tragedy in this involves something far more important than the fate and future role of Jesse Jackson, politician.

Jackson, by any standard, is an extraordinary figure, full of passion, energy and eloquence, charismatic in the best sense of the word and a symbol of hope and pride to millions of Americans whose lives remain the most desperate in this society. The idea that they would be better served by going it alone, away from the nation's majority party -- yes, the Democrats still are that despite the new political era seemingly dawning -- is a cruel delusion and disservice to their hopes for a better life.

Politics is still the art of the possible and the practical. No minority can achieve significant gains in a democratic society by standing apart.

The tragedy is that Jackson could be a great force in helping shape that "Rainbow Coalition" of his. He won't the way he is acting. For now, he seems more interested in getting ink in the paper than in working to create a unified political approach to problems. He seems to glory more in being part of the problem than part of the solution.

That, perhaps, is the price of being a political hot dog. In the end, popping off and sizzling aren't very satisfactory.

From time to time, as proprietor of this Sunday morning Page 3 perch, it's a pleasure to pass on news of an extraordinary new book. That's the case with Lance Morrow's "The Chief: A Memoir of Fathers and Sons." It's a moving -- and disturbing -- account of a timeless theme: the always complicated relationships between fathers and sons, and families and generations as well. It is beautifully written, sensitive and painfully honest. If you're looking for something truly worthwhile while shopping for holiday bargains, I believe you'll find Morrow's book memorable and rewarding.