Some of us down here took exception a while back when John Aldridge referred to Jimmy Carter as “a redneck peanut farmer from Georgia.” We felt it was a gross libel on rednecks.
Of course, Aldridge didn’t mean to be complimentary. Calling our former President that was about as malicious, as offensive, and as beside the point as calling Jesse Jackson a nigger preacher from Chicago. Call Carter naive; call him ineffectual; call him, even, a wimp. Call Jackson manipulative; call him hypocritical; call him, even, a knave. But let’s stick to name-calling that has something to do with character, ability, or performance.
What prompts me to bring this up is the apparently quadrennial newsworthiness of Mr. Jackson. Here he is back again, like a bad penny. It’s tempting to say that he’s the Democrats’ problem—and it is fun to watch them tiptoe around him as if he were a land mine. But he’s not just an accident waiting to happen to somebody else’s party, he’s a problem for the rest of us, too.
Not that he’s going to be President, or even the Democratic nominee. Surely by the time this appears in print, that will be evident to all. Even the Democrats aren’t that suicidal. But it’s regrettable that he has somehow become the de facto spokesman for black Americans. If he’s accommodated by the political system, it will be disastrous. But if he isn’t, many blacks will apparently feel rebuked and scorned, still again. They don’t need that, and The Nation doesn’t either.
How can we account for the extent of his support in the black community? Surely many black Americans know better. Surely their defense of this indefensible man is reflexive, knee- jerk, much the same as what I felt when John Aldridge made me momentarily regret that I hadn’t voted for Jimmy Carter. They must suspect that white folks dislike Jackson for the wrong reasons—the way I know some people disliked Carter because he was a Georgian. Some of Jackson’s supporters even imply from time to time that it’s only because he’s black that he won’t be nominated.
Friends, that’s rubbish. The fact of the matter is that if he weren’t black, you never would’ve heard of him. His politics wouldn’t get him to first base in this country. He is, basically, a black Jim Hightower.
Jim who? (That’s my point. Hightower is a Texas populist whose political career has probably topped out at agriculture commissioner.) A writer in the London Spectator got it exactly right when he observed: “If Jesse Jackson fails to be elected to office in the United States this year it will not be because he is a black man but because he is a socialist.” And, he added, “Americans, very sensibly, do not like socialists at all.”
There is, in addition, the matter of inexperience. As Mayor Young of Detroit observes: “Jesse ain’t never run anything except his mouth.”
Personally, I regret that the right reasons why sensible people, black and white, should dislike Jackson—or at least dislike the idea of entrusting him with any responsibility—are so compelling. I started out with a warm spot in my heart for him. Of course, I briefly had high hopes for Jimmy Carter, too.
Still, Jackson did go to North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, and he’s been a loyal alumnus. And the mother of a friend of mine knew his mother, back in South Carolina, and said she was a fine woman. (The South is still like that.) Besides, like many Southerners, I’m a pushover for the traditional blackpreacher rhetorical style, and give Jackson credit: he spews rhetoric like a Ted Sorenson in meltdown. Much of it is baby talk, but you can pan in that stream and find real gold. How about this, from the summer of 1987: “I’d rather run to the special interests than run from the special prosecutor.” Not bad—not bad at all. Hard to imagine Walter Mondale coming up with that.
Besides, Jackson used to say some good things. My memory isn’t what it used to be, but I sure do remember his addressing a convocation in Chapel Hill 15 or 16 years ago. He was preceded on the program by an economics professor who droned on through a paper on (as I recall) “human capital development.” Our black students had turned out in force to hear Jackson, and their impatience became manifest in conversations less and less sotto voce. When it came Jackson’s turn to speak, he began by chewing them out. He said their manners were abominable, and their mamas would be ashamed of them. Besides, he said, the professor was saying things they ought to pay attention to. How were they ever going to amount to anything if they didn’t shut up and listen to people who knew more than they did? (The professor was Ray Marshall, incidentally, who later became Secretary of Labor.)
That’s the Jesse Jackson some of us used to admire. He was an impressive figure, preaching self-reliance and self-respect to a demoralized people who seemed ready to hear that message. It’s hard to imagine that Jesse Jackson even thinking “Hymietown,” much less saying it—and he didn’t pick that up in the South, by the way.
So, how did a black preacher with Southern manners and all-American values become a virtual Sandinista in little more than a decade? Was it an act all along, just opportunism, recognizing that becoming the favorite civil rights leader of people like me would pay off in money for PUSH and influence for Jackson? Did it just stop paying?
Or has Jackson really changed? Did influence and celebrity go to his head? Did he fall in with bad companions? (He certainly has some now, not just minor-league bigmouths like Louis Farrakhan, but the real McCoy: Fidel and Arafat and Daniel “Specs” Ortega.)
If the old Jesse was a charlatan, he sure fooled me. But I almost hope he was. Because if he wasn’t—if he was the leader I thought he might be— what has become of him is tragic.
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