Travels with Jesse
Inevitably there are gasps—the next President—followed by ecstatic whoops of laughter and cheers—of the United States—followed by an avalanche of emotion as the Reverend Jackson strides to the podium and stands there, arms outstretched, smiling confidently, triumphant. In the beginning his triumph was the mere fact that he was a black man running for President—debating his white opponents on television (and sometimes getting the better of them), qualifying for federal campaign funds and Secret Service protection and his own clot of network camera crews. But now it has become something more than that. Over the past month Jesse Jackson has transformed his campaign from a personal crusade—or, as the critics charged, an ego trip—into a genuine political challenge, not yet for the Presidency, but for a significant piece of the action in the making of a President. In the process, he has become the most potent black leader since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most charismatic presidential candidate since Robert Kennedy—and also the most disturbing and divisive national politician since George Wallace. While drawing the largest and most enthusiastic crowds by far of any presidential candidate this year, he has also drawn fire for anti-Semitic remarks that have hurt his image among both black and white Americans.
Nonetheless, even though Jesse Jackson won't be "the next President of the United States," he will surely end this primary season the most powerful black man ever to walk into an American political convention. If the race between Gary Hart and Walter Mondale remains close, he could conceivably have the delegate strength to be a kingmaker when the Democrats meet in San Francisco this summer; at the very least, his popularity will force the party to pay heed to his demands.
Jackson's power is different from the moral authority wielded by his mentor, Dr. King. At 42, he is not so much a saintly dreamer standing on the mountaintop as a rough voice from the streets. There is menace to his message, a sense of anger and impatience rather than passive resistance. When he walks the streets of New York and Philadelphia—as he did earlier this month—he is greeted as a rock star might be, with shrieks and a crush of teenage girls (who often wear Jesse and Michael Jackson buttons). Unlike Dr. King, Jackson doesn't give speeches about what might be, but about demands right now: "Not liberalism, but liberation...not social service, but social change...not welfare or workfare, but our share...."
The impact of this message on black audiences, and sometimes on Hispanics and whites as well, can be galvanic. The power of Jackson's oratory is in the hearing: the layers of nuance, the tumbling rhythms, the way he weaves themes and words like a fine jazz musician—no two speeches alike, always improvising, riffing with words, sometimes entangling himself in nonsensical circumlocutions like a black Howard Cosell, but almost always emerging at some rhetorically successful level, his audience standing and cheering, the preacher smiling and giving a double thumbs-up, his victory sign. As the New York primary approached, the boldness of his solo flights became truly astonishing. On primary day he made a whirlwind tour of churches and colleges, reminding his audiences that Martin Luther King had been "crucified" on April 4, 1968. "Today, on April 3, 1984. in New York, you have the opportunity to roll away the stone...and tomorrow, on April 4, we will have a victory that will be a resurrection! New Life! New Hope! New Priorities!" If it seemed a bit presumptuous to compare Martin Luther King to Jesus Christ (and to put himself in the same league as both), the vote totals that night proved nothing less than miraculous. He won 87 percent of the black vote in New York (plus 34 percent of the Hispanics and 6 percent of the whites), which very nearly placed him ahead of Gary Hart in the state. At his victory party, it wasn't only teenage girls who were gushing, but established black politicians like Basil Paterson, a likely candidate for mayor of New York next year and a man known for his reserve. "I'm just like any other black person," Paterson said, bouncing on his toes. "I'm thrilled by what Jesse has done here. I'm inspired by it. A month ago who would've believed this could happen?"
The black landslide in New York was an emotional peak for a campaign that had seen more than its share of ups and downs, and Jackson's showing last week in Pennsylvania confirmed that he remains firmly in control of his constituency. When Jackson announced his candidacy last November, it was regarded as yet another publicity ploy by a man considered a showboat by much of the black establishment. The political experts figured he would split the black vote with Walter Mondale, and do well to get 10 percent over all. The estimates rose when Jackson went to Syria and retrieved captured Navy flier Robert Goodman Jr. on Jan. 3, but plummeted again a month later when the Washington Post reported that he had called Jews "Hymies" and New York "Hymietown" in private conversations. Such ethnic crudity probably would have torpedoed the candidacy of any other politician, and it certainly confirmed the worst suspicions of many Jews, who had been worried about Jackson since he was photographed being embraced by Yasser Arafat in 1979. Jackson offered a belated apology and managed to keep afloat with the support of Southern blacks, who voted for him in droves throughout the month of March. By the time he reached New York, Jackson was feeling secure enough to criticize Hart and Mondale for their insistence on moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. "There are two million African-Americans in New York City. Where is the discussion of African policy?" he would ask his predominantly black audiences. "But this time you don't have to complain and stay home and be cynical. This time you don't have to choose between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Vote for me."
In Philadelphia, on the day after the New York primary, a young black factory worker named Billy Martin was taking the Lehigh Avenue bus home when he spotted a crowd gathered in front of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church, which has a predominantly Puerto Rican congregation. "I thought somebody had been shot," he later said. "But then they told me Jesse Jackson was coming. I asked, 'When is he coming?' and no one knew. I didn't care, though. I'd be willing to wait all night for that man."
For a time it seemed possible that Billy Martin would have to wait all night. The Jackson campaign not only was late, but lost...again. Reporters who have traveled with Jackson from the start have come to expect confusion, schedule changes and general chaos in the most disorganized campaign in recent memory. On this particular occasion, the schedule had been changed three times in the previous two hours. An impromptu press conference had been added, a speech at a community college was dropped, then added again. The press buses, arriving at the college, were told that Jackson already had left. Jackson, arriving at the college, was told the press had not yet arrived. He waited for the press. The press, having gone on to Holy Cross Lutheran Church, waited for Jackson—except for several disgruntled camera crews, which stormed out after being exiled to a distant balcony. "You have to understand that many of these churches don't think very highly of the white media," explained Frank Watkins, Jesse Jackson's press secretary. Watkins is white, a former Church of God minister. "They feel they've been ignored too often...and when they receive coverage, the message is often distorted."
Watkins might as well have been describing the Jackson campaign's attitude toward the press, especially since the "Hymietown" controversy. "The attitude seems to be not-so-benign neglect," said one reporter, who is black. "They figure that we're going to bust our butts to cover him in any case, so they don't have to do anything to help us. They're probably right too."
The candidate himself seemed—understandably—determined not to let his guard down with reporters. Private interviews tended to be little more than regurgitations of his speeches. Unlike other campaigns, where daily press conferences are the rule, there were few opportunities to question Jackson closely. Even as the campaign picked up steam, the tensions with the press seemed to grow. When Louis Farrakhan, the radical leader of the Nation of Islam, issued a thinly veiled death threat against Milton Coleman, the black Washington Post reporter who had revealed Jackson's "Hymietown" remarks, the candidate refused to disassociate himself from Farrakhan. The black reporters covering the campaign debated whether to come to Coleman's support. "Farrakhan's threat is outrageous, of course," said one. "But there are those who say it was out of line for Coleman to report things Jackson said in an off-the-record conversation too." As wary as Jackson was with the press, he seemed unable to understand what he had done to offend Jews. In a newsmagazine interview a month later, he tried to explain his earlier gaffe and made things worse by talking about going to "Jewtown" in Chicago to buy suits from "Hyman and Sons." He is reported to have made similar statements in a Playboy interview scheduled to appear next month.
Jesse Jackson did eventually arrive at the Holy Cross Lutheran Church that night, and he gave a rousing speech—as always. His audience knew nothing of the confusion surrounding the appearance and cared little that they had been kept waiting for hours. When asked if the speech was worth the wait, the young factory worker named Billy Martin said, "Shoot, man, I've been waiting all my life to hear somebody talk like that."
With voters like Martin firmly in his corner, Jackson set out to add some lighter hues to his Rainbow Coalition in the following days. He spent one night with unemployed steelworker Mike Wargo near Pittsburgh (Wargo gave the Reverend and Mrs. Jackson his water bed while he and his wife, Mary, slept on couches downstairs). In Homestead, a dying steel town across the river from Pittsburgh, Jackson spent the morning after his night with the Wargos visiting a breadline for out-of-work steelworkers. There he won the support of Ron Weisen, a dissident leader of the Steelworkers Union. He was cheered by the workers waiting on line for food when he talked about how "contemptuous" the Reagan Administration has been of their suffering: "You're not lazy. No one can accuse you of being lazy. You worked the hardest of anyone. You were sweating in the mills while others were relaxing on the beaches...."
Afterward, some of the white steelworkers said they might support Jackson. "Mondale's going to be another Carter, and Hart sounds like Reagan," said Greg Narleski, who'd been laid off by U.S. Steel for 22 months. "When things get this bad, we usually need a war to get the economy moving again. Maybe a good radical change like Jesse Jackson will have the same effect."
Mike Wargo, with whom Jackson had spent the night, took a more moderate view: "He's a smart man, and he fights hard for his people. I agree with a lot of what he says, but I really don't think he has much of a chance."
Another group targeted by Jackson as possible supporters were peace activists, disappointed by Mondale's and Hart's vows to continue increasing the defense budget, but at a slower rate than Reagan. Jackson, by contrast, proposed a 20 percent defense reduction. "You can't hold a missile in one hand and a dove in the other," he told college audiences, to rousing applause, as his campaign moved from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin. "This time around, peace activists won't have to stand outside the convention hall with a picket sign. You can be on the inside, this time around. Vote for me."
Concrete support from the peace movement was hard to come by, though. In a private meeting in his hotel suite in Madison, Wis., Jackson pleaded with a dozen local antinuke leaders to support him in the state caucuses rather than remaining uncommitted. He agreed to endorse their "Peace Plank" and asked for their endorsement in return. The activists wouldn't budge. "We can hold a press conference and thank you for supporting the Peace Plank," said one. "That will have tremendous impact in Wisconsin."
Later he addressed a jam-packed rally of predominantly white college students at the Madison Area Technical College. "Don't go uncommitted to the caucuses," he pleaded. "Make up your minds. Commit yourself to a new direction."
Realizing that Madison had been a radical bastion in the 1960s, Jackson closed with a recitation of his own past: "In 1964 Hart and Mondale believed in integrated public accommodations, but I marched for it. In 1965 Hart and Mondale favored the Voting Rights Act, but I risked my life for it. In 1966 they supported open housing, but I dodged bricks with Dr. King for it. Last December they hoped that Goodman would be released from captivity in Syria, but I went and got him...."
The crowd seemed to explode then, rising, rushing toward the stage, arms out—a rainbow of arms: black, brown, yellow, white—and Jesse Jackson reached avidly into it to shake hands. Like most rainbows, though, this one was elusive and fleeting, and disappeared quickly as the students returned to classes. Jesse Jackson, perhaps a bit dazzled by the glimpse of a dream, lingered there a moment before moving on.
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