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Taking Jackson Seriously

Any American child can grow up to be President.

[TIME Magazine cover]

(TIME, April 11, 1988) -- That idealistic sentiment began as part of the catechism of democracy, but through generations of rote it has degenerated into a kindergarten fable. Adults, of course, know the truth. The presidency is reserved for white men who have held high office and who have almost always avoided embracing a cause or expressing a sentiment that is far outside the mainstream of established opinion.

But there are rare moments when the truths that seemed self- evident begin to be re-examined. The recalibration is a slow process, and it does not always immediately lead to dramatic consequences. Still, just the act of toying with a previously unimaginable possibility leaves an indelible mark. Even if the surface of life goes on pretty much as before, a seed has been planted that may someday bloom.

And so it is in the spring of 1988 with the campaign of Jesse Jackson. Twenty years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a disciple of the civil rights martyr has seized the crown of Democratic front runner. Jackson was not merely an acolyte; he was the impetuous rebel in King's official family, the one who appeared on television the day after the shooting wearing a bloody shirt and boldly -- and inaccurately -- claiming that it was he, Jesse, who cradled the dying Martin in his arms. Now exactly two decades after the death of the man who fought for the right to vote, Jackson is demanding the political rights that come with those votes. And so, for the first time in the nation's history, a major political party was grappling with one of the biggest what-ifs of all: What if Democratic voters actually nominate a black man for President?

That question would be explosive if the contender were a safe token, a man who had held all the right offices, adopted all the sensible positions, and differed from the majority's norms only by the accident of his race. But this contender challenges all the established verities at once. For Jackson, the illegitimate son of a teenage mother, is a fiery preacher who rose to national prominence through controversy and tumult, and he now heads a left-wing populist movement that confronts the centrist assumptions of political life.

Such a nomination would have been unthinkable four years ago. Indeed, it was unthinkable just two weeks ago. But then Jackson's makeshift coalition of inner-city blacks, imperiled autoworkers, college students and affluent liberals swept the Michigan caucuses with 55% of the vote (the highest of any Democratic candidate outside his home state) and humbled the party favorite, Michael Dukakis. The electrifying magnitude of this Rust Belt rebellion gave the preacher-politician the credibility he had long craved. Suddenly party leaders took seriously the inexorable delegate arithmetic that showed Jackson running neck and neck with Dukakis for the lead. At week's end the fast-shifting delegate tote board gave Dukakis 653 to Jackson's 646, with Albert Gore stalled in third place with 381.

While his conventional rivals increasingly seemed tepid, technocratic and tedious, Jackson was fueled by that most elusive of political energy sources: true momentum. It was that quality, along with his popular vote lead in the primaries, that earned Jackson the sobriquet front runner. For the moment, the "rainbow coalition" was reality, not rhetoric, as white voters enlisted in the Jackson crusade to tear down racial barriers. Even though Dukakis handily won last week's Connecticut primary, 2 to 1, network exit polls gave Jackson roughly 20% of the white vote. This Tuesday's Wisconsin primary provides another tough test: Jackson was campaigning hard and holding his own in a state with a minuscule 3% black voting-age population.

All this was merely a prelude to the coming titanic struggle in the April 19 New York primary. Governor Mario Cuomo remains determinedly on the sidelines, and despite the Democratic disarray, there is a growing acknowledgment that he has no intention of playing party savior -- at least before the convention. Still, the New york primary promises a feverish three-way contest, in which Jackson might capture a plurality in the state with the second largest number of delegates. And if he can make it there, he can make it anywhere -- even, conceivably, to the top of the Democratic ticket.

In the days immediately following Michigan, the Jackson campaign was infused with a front runner's frenzy. Victory unleashed the kind of primordial Democratic passions that many believed had died with Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Crowds mushroomed to unmanageable and chaotic size. Supporters all but crushed Jackson at every stop, thrusting out hands, begging for his signature on souvenirs, grasping, craving to be part of it all. Office workers cheered him through hermetically sealed windows; old women, as well as scores of the young, chanted, "Jesse! Jesse! Jesse!"

When Jackson campaigned in New York City, two separate groups of acolytes, maybe 500 each time, spontaneously gathered on sidewalks to stare at buildings in which he was holding meetings. Hundreds of supporters chased their champion down a dark street after nightfall on the north side of Milwaukee. Telephone calls jammed the switchboards at Jackson headquarters, and contributions poured into the congenitally ill-funded campaign at the rate of $60,000 a day. Small wonder that the populist preacher said with smiling satisfaction, "There is a kind of Jackson-action fever in the air."

Along with the fever came the growing perception that the Democratic Party has been unalterably changed, regardless of the identity of the eventual nominee. Destroyed almost overnight were years of maneuvering by Democratic moderates to recast the party in a nonideological, centrist mode. Even if Jackson is not the nominee, his voice and his delegates will almost inevitably shape the party platform. But as important as the message are the changed attitudes toward the messenger. Until Michigan, few white Democratic leaders actually took Jackson seriously as a possible nominee. They purported to publicly, but privately consigned him to the subordinate role of campaigning energetically for the Democratic ticket in the fall. There was always a patronizing undertone to these backstairs debates over the price of Jackson's support. Even the great white question "What does Jesse want?" had a condescending ring. It was almost as if the Democrats planned to offer Jackson pomp and hoped he would not look too closely at the circumstances behind it.

But part of the respect accorded to front runners is the respect of being held accountable. Jackson had, until last week, been subjected to the insult of kindness and deference: positions and proposals and past activities that might have opened another candidate to unrelenting abuse were treated gingerly by opponents and the press. Partly it was on the theory that Jackson could never really get to the Oval Office. Partly it was due to the same type of teflon that coated Ronald Reagan: his message was so clear and inspiring to his supporters that the lapses in factual details seemed irrelevant. Now Jackson has won the right to be held to a tougher standard, and he will be.

There were signs that Jackson, having come within sight of the mountaintop, now risked tumbling down the other side. The candidate, and the campaign that he had formed in his image, appeared almost lost in reverie. Jackson began making unscheduled appearances and last-minute schedule changes, dropping by Bill Cosby's Manhattan town house for a few hours to chat with Stevie Wonder and Debbie Allen. This return to the freewheeling style of the 1984 campaign was an indication that overconfidence has become an occupational hazard within the Jackson entourage. Even as hopes soared, there was no overall campaign strategy other than to continue to let Jesse be Jesse. "They think they've won," said a Jackson adviser. "They've declared victory. They may just rest on their laurels and blow this thing."

Jackson was, nonetheless, adroit at harnessing the symbolism that came with his new status. He arranged a Washington breakfast with a mixed group of Democratic out-of-power brokers, who gathered under the aegis of that variable presidential confidant Clark Clifford. The breakfast's purpose was for this rump faction of the party establishment to publicly bless Jackson as an acceptably respectable would-be nominee, but there were almost no elected officials present who might actually have to run on the same ticket with him this fall.

Jackson dodged one impolite question abut his prior relationship with Black Muslim Leader Louis Farrakhan, an intemperate and anti-Semitic hatemonger. But otherwise those at the Clifford coffee klatch put on their best company behavior; they even dutifully laughed when Jackson snidely dismissed offers of help from aides to fallen presidential rivals with the line "Sometimes you can make energy from trash." As one breakfast clubber said in summing up the faction's reaction to Jackson, "Liberals like to be abused like this once in a while. It's an easy way of showing how tolerant we are."

That same turn-the-other-cheek liberalism, that deep reluctance to directly confront Jackson, a black man, continued to plague Michael Dukakis. The morning after the Connecticut primary, the victorious Massachusetts Governor appeared with Jackson on the Today show. Jackson immediately seized control by congratulating Dukakis, then adding dismissively, "you did well with your home-field advantage." Dukakis laughed nervously and fell silent. The incident was an apt symbol for the Dukakis dilemma: the need for the earnest gears-and-levers technocrat to combat the powerful passions of a black preacher.

Although Dukakis has been somewhat emboldened by adversity, his critiques of Jackson remain oblique and limited. When pressed, Dukakis points out that he dissents from some of Jackson's stands, such as advocacy of a Palestinian homeland. But though the Governor once grew adept at trading invective with Richard Gephardt, now he will only gingerly compare his record with Jackson's,, using lines like "I don't just talk about jobs; I've helped create them."

For a candidate as well known as Dukakis, it would be impossible and probably foolhardy to try to reinvent himself this late in the campaign. All Dukakis' handlers can do is rejigger the campaign themes and rewrite the stump speech in an effort to narrow the passion gap. At Serb Hall in Milwaukee, Dukakis unveiled the architecture of his revamped message. "I don't want to be known as the Great Communicator," he declared with little fear of being challenged on this prophecy. "I want to be known as a Great Builder." It is a clunky but apt moniker for a candidate who remains closer in spirit to Robert Moses than to Robert Kennedy. "People are maybe less interested in charisma and a lot more interested in somebody who can go in there and really provide the kind of presidential leadership we need," Dukakis told TIME. "I am what I am. I'm not somebody else."

But is that enough? After Michigan, there is some question whether the Democrats who care enough to vote in primaries and participate in caucuses will settle for Dukakis, the jelly maker, when they can have Jackson, the tree shaker. By failing to win a major contest outside New England since Super Tuesday, Dukakis cracked the axle on his bandwagon. Indirect negotiations with Cuomo over an endorsement were broken off after the Michigan debacle. Dukakis remains by far the party's most plausible nominee, but only if he can rebound in Wisconsin, New York and the later primaries. Dukakis still holds formidable advantages in terms of money, organization and the goodwill of party leaders. But the terrain is littered with the wreckage of other campaigns that boasted every asset except a compelling message to motivate voters.

Had Albert Gore announced on the morning after the March 8 Super Tuesday primaries that he planned to take the rest of the month off, there would have been hoots of derision. In hindsight, three weeks at the beach would have been almost as effective, and far less costly, than the campaign Gore waged. After squandering an estimated $320,000 on TV ads in Illinois and Connecticut, Gore remained the king of the single digits by failing to score over 10% in two successive primaries.

Like Dukakis, Gore suffers from an inability to utter a phrase or advance a proposal that sparks a visceral response in Democratic voters. "There has been no real focus, no consistency," says an official of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group sympathetic to Gore's candidacy. "He has been lurching from issue to issue and lacking an encompassing theme that would tell you who Al Gore is and what his prinicples are."

But where Dukakis clings to the caution of an erstwhile front runner, Gore offers a strategic boldness born of desperation. His target is the upcoming New York primary and, in particular, the nearly one-quarter of the state's Democrats who are Jewish. Gore's newfound issue, as so often happens with underdog candidates in New York, is the fervor of his largely uncritical support for Israel. Gore, who is developing an unhealthy instinct to pander, has attacked Dukakis for endorsing a letter signed by 30 Senators (five of them Jewish) criticizing the Israeli government's refusal to negotiate over the return of occupied territories.

With his back to the wall, Gore was not content to squabble just with Dukakis. Instead the Tennessee Senator became the first Democratic candidate in either 1984 or this year to grant Jackson the honors that come with full candidate equality: a no-holds- barred attack on his record. Speaking before a Jewish group in New York City, Gore declared, "I categorically reject his notion that there is a moral equivalence between Israel and the P.L.O. I am dismayed by his embrace of Arafat and Castro." But there was another, even more explosive sentence in an earlier speech that day, one that Gore's aides later regretted not excising from the text. "We're not choosing a preacher," Gore said, "we're choosing a President."

In context, the sentence expressed a pointed criticism of Jackson's lack of traditional qualifications for the presidency. But the reaction illustrates the difficulties Democrats face in holding Jackson to the same standards as other candidates. "The unfortunate thing is that the line might give off the appearance of being racist, which is certainly not what Gore intended," said a nervous campaign adviser. Jackson's initial response was artful: "When Gore said in several debates that he would endorse me if I were the party's nominee, he knew of my vocation at that time." The ire of Jackson's advisers was far more explicit, Campaign Manager Gerald Austin went out of his way to tell reporters, on the record, that Gore was a "chicken s____."

There was a complex element of Kabuki drama to the sniping between Gore and Jackson. There is an odd symbiotic link between the two candidates in the New York primary, since Jackson is more likely to win if Gore does well. A little primary math helps explain this peculiar convergence of self-interest. In 1984 Jackson, then a far more polarizing candidate, won 26% of the New York vote. If this time Jackson combines 95% of the black vote with 20% of the white vote, he will end up with more than 35% of the statewide tally. That leaves just over 60% of the vote to be divided between Dukakis and Gore. Thus for Jackson to win would require Gore, the long shot in the race, to run close behind Dukakis. Coming full circle, the more courageous Gore seems to white audiences for daring to take on Jackson, the more likely it is that the black preacher-politician will win the biggest primary of his career.

From now until the primaries end in California, Jackson's hopes for the nomination depend on the expansion of his already surprising base of white support. Even with record turnouts among blacks, Jackson probably cannot win a major two-man or even three-man primary without the support of well over 20% of the white electorate. Before Super Tuesday, Jackson was regarded, and may have even regarded himself, as a charismatic protest candidate -- appealing and beguiling, but a protest candidate nonetheless. Only in recent weeks, as Jackson garnered 17% white support in Massachusetts, 20% in Connecticut and what some estimated at 25% to 33% in the Michigan caucuses, has the epic potential of the Jackson candidacy seemed remotely likely to be realized.

This sea change in white attitudes is not merely a reflection of the quirky nature of Democratic contests in which the turnout is so low that the votes of the committed activists are magnified. National polls tell the same story: white America is reassessing its initial antipathy to Jesse Jackson. As recently s last December, Jackson's negative ratings in the polls were 37%; now they are around 30% and dropping. In a nation where no black has been elected to the Senate since 1972 and none has ever been chosen as a state Governor, this turnabout is remarkable. But it is doubly remarkable when one considers Jackson's troublesome record: embracing Arafat, praise for Castro, association with Farrakhan, mismanagement of federal grants, and stands on issues far to the left of conventional discourse.

The simplest explanation of Jackson's growing appeal is what he is saying and the way he says it. While other candidates have task forces of advisers searching for a message, Jackson intuitively grasps what voters want to receive. "We must protect the American family from two basic threats that shake the very foundation of our society," Jackson declared in kicking off his campaign. "We must stop the flow of drugs into our country and stop the flow of jobs out of it. Stop drugs from coming in; stop jobs from going out."

These simple statements resonate because they stem directly from Jackson's life experience. A candidate born out of wedlock can preach on the sanctity of family. A candidate who was advocating economic self-help and personal self-discipline in the ghettos of Chicago can speak with deep credibility about lives lost to drugs and livelihoods lost to economic downturn. A populist -- and Jackson is without question the authentic article -- needs to define a common enemy. What the titans of Wall Street once were to William Jennings Bryan, the international drug cartels and the soulless multinational corporations are to Jackson.

Jackson delivers this message heaping with simplicity and garnished with memorable rhetoric. Unlike his conventional counterparts, he does not bog himself down in the boring essential details of how his ideas might work in practice. He is resolute about keeping his words clean, simple, unrefined and, as George Wallace once advised him, "down where the goats can get it." Jackson is refreshing in his willingness to take unequivocal stands. At a debate in the Bronx last week, Gore and Simon were asked about their positions on handguns. Both laboriously made distinctions between different types of weapons. When it came Jackson's turn, he said simply, "We must ban handguns." The audience roared.

As an orator, Jackson is eloquent, funny and provocative. Hearing Jackson speak is not a passive experience but an active interplay between candidate and voter, the kind of two-way dialogue that has all but disappeared from political life. He virtually grabs his listeners by the hand and drags them over deep crevices of logic and fact to new understanding. These leaps of faith can be breathtaking and at times demagogic. In Hartford last week, Jackson looked up at the shimmering glass of the downtown office towers and intoned, "There is something wrong with this nations when here in this state, the insurance capital of the world, there are 300,000 people without health insurance."

Ignore, as Jackson's audience did, that he provided no explanation of how to pay for his additional health insurance. Dwell instead on Jackson' oft-repeated formulation "There is something wrong with this nation." That sentiment cuts close to the heart of Jackson's appeal to left-liberals who are wont to use their primary votes to send a message. With the black underclass abandoned to their misery, the homeless sleeping on the streets, factories closing and the affluent unabashed at flaunting their possessions, there is a persistent sense that something is awry with the nation, something far deeper than what party is in control of the White House. "One segment of the population is doing well," said Anthony Iwaskiewizc, a Milwaukee businessman backing Jackson in this week's primary. "The other is doing poorly. There doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Jackson is going to bring notice to the bigger politicians that there are people's needs, not just the needs of business and armsmakers."

Such send-them-a-message primary votes did not end with Wallace. In a sense, Jackson supporters are registering a protest against efforts to neuter the Democratic Party so it can compete in a conservative era. It is not accidental that Jackson's two primary opponents, Dukakis and Gore, are post-liberal politicians who have built their careers around competence and mastery of complex subjects rather than ideological appeal. The almost willful blandness of these two white Democrats is a form of protective camouflage designed to help them win in November, if nominated. These sober strategies seem pallid to many Democratic voters in contrast to the feel-good allure of a vote for Jackson.

But even as Jackson arouses Democratic passions, this blossoming love affair cannot forever mask the reality that if he is nominated the party will lose -- and probably lose big. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower, one of the nation's most articulate left-wing populists, insists that if Jackson is the nominee, the "increase in voters would more than offset defections." There is a glimmer of merit to the contention, since voter turnout was just 53% in 1984. but partisans made the same arguments for Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. The results were two of the biggest landslides in modern history.

One of the curiosities that has accompanied Jackson's ascendancy is the tolerant silence of most elected officials and party leaders. For 15 years the Democrats have caucused, conferenced and connived to find ways to erase the stigma of McGovernism from the party. But now, as the party is forced to contemplate the nomination of a candidate far more divisive than a professorish two-term Senator from South Dakota, there are almost no voices publicly raised in opposition. Instead, the dominant sentiment is that of Mario Cuomo, who said, "The winner ought to be the candidate with a plurality. If Jackson is the winner, bang, it's his. That's the only way."

In a sense, Jackson is now the beneficiary of all the prior efforts to derail his candidacy. The Southern regional primary that was at the core of Super Tuesday was designed to lay the groundwork for a moderate nominee who could carry Dixi. Instead, Jackson vaulted into contention by capturing roughly one-third of the Southern delegates. In the weeks before Michigan, Party Chairman Paul Kirk tried to grease they way for Dukakis by arguing that whoever was ahead when the primaries were over was entitled to the nomination, even if he was far short of the 2,082 delegates needed to win. It was always an odd theory: anointing a candidate who failed to win close to a majority was preferable to the uncertainty of a brokered convention. But the party embraced Kirk's notion with such fervor that it may rally around Jackson if he is the delegate leader after California.

There are several theories to explain the surface equanimity of traditional Democrats in the face of the Jackson groundswell. For some it simply reflects an innate sense of fairness, coupled with the fear that any overt stop-Jackson movement would be perceived as racism. Others calculate that the Democrats are doomed to defeat if Jackson is either nominated or rebuffed and that permanently alienating his black supporters would do far greater long-term damage to the party.

Even as Jackson's rivals -- Dukakis in particular -- stress their electability, signs are growing that aggressively pressing the Jesse-can't-win argument could trigger an angry black response. Texas Congressman Mickey Leland, a leading black supporter of Jackson, called a press conference last week to denounce an unnamed cabal of party leaders who were plotting against Jackson. There were no specifics to back up the vague allegations, but Leland fired a warning shot through his none- too-subtle use of the word racist.

In truth, even most Democrats actively alarmed over Jackson's prospects are doing little more than grumbling in private. There is, to be sure, something timorous about this palpable reluctance to publicly criticize Jackson. A well-known Democratic insider angrily but anonymously denounced Jackson in an expletive-filled diatribe as a charlatan, "from the phony blood smeared all over him after the King assassination, to his 'Viva Castro' bull, to wrapping his arms around Arafat. And you can be damn sure that all of that will be used against him if he's on the ticket."

Others hope that the press, if no one else, will provide the gimlet-eyed assessment of Jackson. Some implicitly assume that Jackson cannot withstand such scrutiny. Certainly Jackson's maladroit steward-ship of $5.6 million in federal grants and contracts awarded under the Carter Administration is a lingering embarrassment. Technically the money went to PUSH-Excel, an educational subsidiary of Jackson's Chicago antipoverty organization, Operation PUSH. From the outset, Jackson was the catalyst for the funding. Carter Cabinet officials such as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano and Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall courted Jackson and invited him to apply for grants. "These federal agencies came to Jesse and threw money at him and at PUSH," recalls Doug Ponci, an official in the audit office of the Department of Education, another agency that sponsored Jackson. "It just overwhelmed them."

Indeed it did. The Justice Department is currently negotiating with PUSH in a civil case for repayment of $1.2 million of Labor and Education Department funds. There is no evidence of fraud, just poor record keeping and documentation. Since running Operation PUSH is Jackson's only administrative experience, this lax record of fiscal accountability remains a disturbing credential for a man who wants to preside over a $1 trillion federal budget.

As Jackson slowly moderates his rhetoric, there is a tendency to portray him as merely a flamboyant heir to Hubert Humphrey's free-spending domestic liberalism. There is truth to this contention, but there is also a clear parallel to another political leader: Ronald Reagan.

Like the President who has run up record deficits, Jackson is infinitely more comfortable talking about goals than doing the green-eyeshade arithmetic to figure out how to pay for them. Jackson's theory: if it sounds good, the money will come from somewhere. His position papers call for higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations as well as draconian -- and dangerously unworkable -- cuts in the military budget. But there are times when Jackson goes beyond such frequent Democratic targets. When he rails against "those who live on credit cards beyond need," he is attacking not only rapacious corporations but the upper middle class.

In the Humphrey tradition, Jackson has promised Democratic voters a laundry list of expensive new domestic programs, from housing to education. The cost of his comprehensive health-care program alone would be near prohibitive even without the deficit problem. Moreover, he has been unable to resist the siren song of free-lunch economics. His centerpiece proposal is to tap $60 billion in public pension funds to finance low-income housing and public works programs. The money would be taken out of stocks and bonds and invested where it could do the most good. Simple in theory, but what about the retirees who would earn a lower return on their retirement funds?

Foreign policy remains the arena where Jackson's radical agenda most explosively collides with conventional political norms. Jackson's world view all but depicts South Africa as a greater threat than the Soviet Union. The candidate's formal briefing paper on "promoting real security" does not even mention in passing the need to counter Soviet mischief in the Third World. In Central America, Jackson would go far beyond cutting off funds to the contras; he would cease military assistance to the guerrilla-plagued governments of El Salvador and Guatemala because they are "waging war . . . against their own people." Not only does Jackson argue that "Western Europe should be responsible for its own conventional defense," he also appears sympathetic to unilateral cuts in the American nuclear arsenal in the frail hope that the Soviets would cut theirs.

With views and vulnerabilities like these, any other presidential candidate, white or black, would have been driven to the sidelines long ago. That is why it still appears improbably that the Democrats will take the bold -- and probably foolhardy -- step of nominating Jackson. But the white political establishment, along with the press, has been consistently under-estimating Jackson since 1984. Then they initially doubted the magnitude of Jackson's appeal to the black community, and now they question his continuing support among whites. What these convention calculation miss is Jackson's uncanny ability to invent his own rules and often win by them. Even if Jackson does not ultimately leave the Democratic Convention in triumph, he will still be a victor. For he has already taught white America that a black person is not only somebody, he can be anybody. Even President of the United States.

-- By Walter Shapiro. Reported by Laurence I. Barrett/Washington, Michael Duffy with Jackson and Michael Riley with Dukakis.

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