Jesse Jackson didn't want to be mayor of Washington -- the District Building would provide too cramped a launching pad for a man who would run the country. But he does seem to want to be the capital's master of ceremonies, and is all over the local scene trying to mediate what he regards as a little scrap between the incumbent, Marion Barry, and Jay Stephens, the federal prosecutor who ran him to earth.
Jackson took lots of bows for nudging Barry into declaring he would not run again -- a minimal concession that was treated like the end of World War II by the local press. Jackson then hit the mayor's favorite theme of racial harassment: If Stephens doesn't fall to plea bargaining, on Jackson's terms, we will know that this is "persecution, not prosecution."
Jackson also seems consumed with solicitude for the mayor's future -- which could, of course, be decided by a newly picked jury for his trial on cocaine possession and perjury charges. Jackson is lecturing the city on the pressing need for a defense fund to pay the mayor's legal fees, finding him employment and exploring "book possibilities." To all this, mysteriously, the mayor is entitled. He was not, after the first few years, a particularly good mayor, and his administration was awash in scandal and corruption. His pension is also a subject of Jackson's pressing and televised concern. You would think His Honor's offense was double parking.
Since Jackson is the most calculating of politicians, we must assume that he thinks his preposterous crusade is advancing what he has called his No. 1 issue, statehood for the District of Columbia. It is hard to see how. And it is hardly a course that would add luster to his portfolio if he decides to run for the presidency again.
If he were to end up in the White House, he would preside over a federal work force of 2.9 million. His message to civil servants in Washington seems to be, do whatever you can get away with. If you're caught, cry racism.
The Barry defense is that the mayor, who was videotaped in a downtown hotel taking cocaine with a former girlfriend, was enticed and trapped by anti-black FBI agents and federal prosecutors. That incident, you might think, is the entire case against him. Actually, the prosecutor has lined up witnesses who will allegedly attest to Barry's consistent drug-taking. Somehow his lying to a grand jury doesn't come up much. As for his lying to schoolchildren, among others, about his habit, that wasn't him, "that was the disease talking."
Barry and Jackson -- of whom once the mayor said, "Jesse don't wanna run nothin' but his mouth" -- are inseparable these days. They go to church together -- Jackson, the shepherd, Barry the lost sheep he brought back to the fold.
The night the mayor announced his decision not to seek a fourth term, Jackson was at the Bethune Awards banquet, warning black politicians that they "could be next."
In the clamor of martyrdom, victimhood, self-pity and paranoia, one clear voice was heard. It was that of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). He was also present at the awards banquet (he got one), where a large number of black elected officials were proffering quotes that they hoped balanced brotherly sympathy with some appreciation of the seriousness of the charges.
Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights strugggle, stood a little apart from the pack. He said what he has been saying since November 1976, when he addressed a group of black elected officials in Georgia:
"We must all be judged and measured by the same standard. Black elected officials cannot use their color as a shield to hide their wrongdoing."
He does not see Barry as a target of "a white conspiracy."
Jackson will have to abandon his campaign to win victimhood for Barry to ride the coattails of Nelson Mandela around the country. Jackson wants custody of the universal black hero during his 12-day American stay.
The change from Barry will be enough to give him the bends, but Jackson is always where the cameras are. He obviously thinks he can stand up to the comparison with Mandela.
Barry, in one of the few admissions he has made, said he was "a poor role model" -- which, he grumped, "is not a crime."
Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail, who never broke, or even bent, is an authentic victim and a luminous role model. He will be here next week when the mayor's trial will be going on. If the mayor and Mandela meet, Barry will say, "I am a victim." And Jackson will back him up.
Maybe black voters will recognize the real thing when they see it.