Democratic presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson left last night on a six-day tour of the Middle East that has many of the trappings of a campaign swing, but is being billed as a humanitarian trip paid for by a tax-exempt "peace and development" group.
After a meeting yesterday with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Jackson told reporters he was going to the Persian Gulf "to inform public opinion on the options -- how long we expect to have a high-visibility presence there, what the costs are, and what alternatives there are so long as the war continues." Jackson had hoped to visit U.S. troops in the area, but the Pentagon refused.
The trip was organized by Jim Zogby, a member of Jackson's finance council and director of the Arab American Institute, which works to motivate Arab Americans to become active in politics. The itinerary includes stops in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia -- where two dinners will be attended by more than 1,000 American business officials. The final leg will include Ethiopia for an emergency meeting of the Organization of African Unity.
Zogby said yesterday that he recognizes the trip's political overtones because of Jackson's candidacy. The traveling party will include the candidate and his wife, Jacqueline; Zogby; Ann Lewis, an unpaid campaign adviser; Frank Watkins and another campaign aide who have gone off the payroll temporarily; an Iowa farmer; the mother of a U.S. serviceman, and Dan Connell, director of Grassroots International, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit group that is picking up the estimated $50,000 cost of the trip.
A cavalcade of print and television journalists also will accompany Jackson.
Asked whether Jackson would seek to raise campaign funds from the business officials he speaks to on the trip, Zogby said that some such officials stationed in the Middle East have "expressed interest" in contributing to Jackson's campaign. "One doesn't discourage that, but that isn't the purpose of the trip," he said. "They won't be solicited."
Connell said yesterday that he checked with his board of directors and an attorney before agreeing to Zogby's request to sponsor the trip. Internal Revenue Service regulations prohibit tax-exempt groups from taking part in political campaigns. The IRS is auditing the relationship between GOP presidential candidate Marion G. (Pat) Robertson's campaign and the tax-exempt Christian Broadcasting Network he founded.
Connell said Grassroots, which he said was started in 1983 to deal with humanitarian issues in Lebanon and Ethiopia, "is in no way associated with Jackson's campaign." He said his office has contacted other candidates to offer them briefings.
Jackson's stands on Middle East issues have been a subject of sensitivity and controversy for years because of his support for a Palestinian homeland and controversial remarks about Jews in the 1984 campaign that caused an uproar in the Jewish American community.
In turn, Jackson has attracted financial support from many Arab Americans. Zogby said the main reason Arab Americans have supported Jackson is that he has allowed them to participate in his campaign, unlike some other candidates.
Gail Pressberg, executive director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a group trying to encourage a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, said yesterday that Zogby asked her about a month ago whether the foundation would sponsor the Jackson trip. She put him in touch with Connell, she said.
Zogby said the State Department helped set Jackson's itinerary, which includes a nondenominational Thanksgiving Day service in Kuwait, and a Little League baseball game in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, as well as meetings with King Fahd and the head of the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh.
Special correspondent Michael Berlin contributed to this report.