Jesse Jackson - He Thinks He Can Win

| Thu Oct. 1, 1987 3:00 AM EDT

Jesse Jackson, the presidential candidate ahead of his time, is often running against the clock. You'll see him joking, poking the air for emphasis, squeezing in one last long answer to one last complicated question while an aide tugs at his elbow. Jackson's 46 years peek out from his midsection, but otherwise he is youthful, energetic, an immensely familiar figure after two decades of hot exposure. His apparent unconcern with earthly schedules is one part of the package.

Jackson began that particular day last July campaigning at home in Chicago before flying to the Bay Area. He had just finished speaking to a convention of black law enforcement officials in Oakland, California,, and we were late for a New York-bound flight from San Francisco. His press secretary, Frank Watkins, had already given up trying to pull Jackson into the white stretch limousine waiting at the curb as the reverend reached out to share a leisurely, private joke with an overweight black man who, at first glance, looked many years Jackson's senior. Then Jackson pivoted suddenly, folded his six-foot-four-inch frame into the backseat of the limousine, and waved good-bye like a film star.

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"That was a home boy. I went to school with him," Jackson chuckled. "Ain't it amazing! He's a chief of police now. You know, you see old friends like that, remember what they strived so hard, so hard, to achieve, see that they got what they strived for-and then you have to wonder why they worked so hard to get it. He's a chief of police!"

No one ever accused the man his friends call "J.J. " of aiming too low. An intractable part of his character, say admirers and detractors alike, is to make the most audacious move; never having run for public office before, in 1984 he made a break for the top position in the land. But a second, equally intractable element of Jackson's makeup is to labor so single-mindedly, like the aggressive football player he was in high school, that he sometimes succeeds at incredible goals. The 3.5 million votes Jackson won in 1984 were the winnings of a highstakes gambler.

Frank Watkins, the Church of God minister who has worked loyally with Jackson for 18 years, smiled as the limousine finally pulled away from curbside and we headed toward the airport. Watkins seems unflappable, having patiently ridden the roller coaster of Jackson's volatile fortunes, methodically tying up the loose ends of Jackson's blitzkrieg style of politics. He's the- one who explains delays, changes in schedule, and no-shows, and acts as an untiring buffer between an aggressive candidate and a contentious press. Once we were on our way, Watkins livened up: "Here's the news. The National Journal just completed a poll of Democrats in the state of New York. You're at 27 percent, and Dukakis is way back, at 10. 5. "

Jackson's odd reaction was a steely, impassive stare. "The most disheartening part of this business," he said, shifting in his seat, "is all the flash, the hype, the stuff going on. If you've got no self-restraint, you're in trouble, because there are all these peaks-and then some real low points."

"So, you don't want to get too hopeful, even about 27 percent?"

"No, of course not. Because none of it matters, none of it, until people actually go to the polls."

There's no more complicated question in the 1988 presidential campaign than what Democratic Party voters will do-and what political activists should do-about Jesse Louis Jackson, born into a poor Southern household to become an internationally recognized leader. In the 1960s he was an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; in the 1970s he ran Chicago's Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), an economic self-help operation; and in the 1980s he emerged as a political globe-trotter, trying to insert himself as an honest broker into world conflicts from the Middle East to Central America.

During the 1984 campaign, Jackson paved the way for serious consideration of a black presidential candidacy. "We were learning how to run then," Jackson says softly. But if 1984 was a time for symbolic breakthroughs -serving chiefly as a sharp reminder to party power brokers about their poor, minority, and progressive constituents-Jackson does not approach 1988 as a representational effort. He's deadly serious about winning the nomination. "Not as in place well, not as in goodshowing, not as in making a difference!" he shouted in a speech to New York union activists. "Not nothing like that! As in win. We can win!"

With a shoestring budget and a learn-as-you-go campaign juggernaut in 1984, Jackson came in third, behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. He believes the Rainbow Coalition can more than double the score this time out, and 8 million votes should lock up the Democratic nomination. "Eight to 10 million votes will win. I can get 8 to 10 million votes," Jackson says. And what about the general election? "One step at a time," he admonishes. "You won't get through the play-offs if you're concentrating on who you're going to be up against in the Super Bowl."

Jackson promises that the helter-skelter organizational problems of his 1984 campaign won't recur; by the time he announces officially, he'll have a solid campaign structure and enough money raised to underwrite a viable candidacy. Money is the bane of his existence at the moment. By August, Joseph Biden had raised more than $3.2 million, Michael Dukakis more than $4 million, and Jackson trailed behind with $600,000 in campaign receipts. At the end of nearly every speech, Jackson acknowledges applause and then, with the voice of an auctioneer, launches into a heavy pitch. "It costs to run this race. It costs to take a risk! Who will donate $1,000? One thousand dollars. Who will donate? Stand, please!"

It will take more than money, of course, to transform Jackson from a vehicle of protest into a vessel of realistic political hope. His biggest carryover debit from the 1984 campaign was an off-the-record reference to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown," for which he never fully apologized. Even more than three years later, given several opportunities, he seems incapable of saying simply, "I made a terrible mistake. I'm sorry."

In speeches and in private conversations, Jackson often says, "One's self-respect is non-negotiable." His stubborn pride is both a source of personal confidence and, simultaneously, a political liability. Jackson's combativeness plays poorly with the press, and the feeling seems mutual. At news conferences, he characteristically holds himself by the coat lapels and pulls down, as if forcing himself to stand in one place long enough to endure repetitious and sometimes silly questioning.

Low credibility with the national press corps is one of Jackson's biggest problems. Part of the problem is inbred: Jackson is the Muhammad Ah of American politics, dancing like a butterfly across the globe and stinging like a bee with his rhetoric. His style, his political views, and his penchant for hyperbole all carry a price.

Jackson is a harping critic of the mass media he needs to use in order to reach his audience. He regularly accuses reporters and news executives of portraying minorities in stereotypically "deadly ways," ridicules the poor affirmative action records of newspapers and networks, and lashes out at publishers he accuses of working in tandem with state prosecutors to tarnish the reputations of black elected officials. "It's a political AIDS spreading across the country!" he shouts.

There is also a clear double standard at work in coverage of the candidates. Jackson tends to be passed off as a "grandstander" and is accused of "issue hopping" for doing what all presidential candidates do: dramatizing the issues he cares about by drawing television cameras to events. When he walked with strikers on the NBCpicket line in New York, for example, he spoke about General Electric's ownership of NBC, GE's involvement in South Africa, GE's export of manufacturing jobs to Taiwan, and the need for strikers to fight not only for their own jobs, but to "fight for jobs for everybody." That may not be an easy 30second bite for the evening news, but it does sum up Jackson's distinctive political views.

Jackson and his strategists seem to think they can even accounts by working hard, by going through the traditional rituals of a mainstream presidential candidacy, shedding, inch by inch, the tendency of others to discount him. Recently they've tried to draw attention to the content of Jackson's new Stump Speech, the rhetorical linchpin of any campaign. On the campaign trail, I watched Watkins and Jackson labor for three days on the new speech, preparing to unveil it at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York. On our overnight flight, Watkins punched away at his computer keyboard until 2 A.M., while Jackson alternately catnapped and leaned over Watkins's shoulder to review copy and snap directions: "There has to be clarity here about our distinctions on protectionism. Here! Get the point?"

With only a few hours sleep, a few other advisors convened the next morning in Jackson's hotel suite to review the speech fine by fine, check the facts, sharpen the language, beef up its specific proposals. "The pronouns are wrong in this line," complained one advisor on loan from a national union. "And what's this about jilted? Come on! Don't use that word just because it rhymes with tilted." (The fine remained.) But there was more than wordplay as Jackson moved in and out of the room, pulling on a T-shirt and giving instructions. He wanted the speech to focus attention on "structural changes in the economy" and bring his new proposals for confronting those changes into focus.

There was near pandemonium in the Hilton Hotel ballroom a few hours later as 5,000 largely middle-class blacks stamped their feet, many chanting "Run, Jesse, run!" as Jackson stood before them. From the dais, NAACP chief Benjamin Hooks, actor Ben Vereen, and heavyweight fighter Michael Spinks also rose to cheer. Jackson began with an attack on the president ("The Reagan administration has shifted the civil rights climate from 'We Shall Overcome' to 'We Shall Overturn. "') and then, politely, calmly, gave a 45-minute discourse on the economy, carefully staying close to his text.

In 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered in Memphis, the poverty rate was 12.8 percent. In 1985, the last year for which we have statistics, it was 14 percent. And it is quite likely that in 1988, on the 20th anniversary of Mng's death, the poverty rate will be higher than when he was assassinated," Jackson declared. American workers are being told that foreign laborers and imported goods are to blame for economic hard times, when the real cause is the decision by transnational corporations to "divest in America." He unveiled his call for a "New Internationalism, " a program to combine constraints against "global union busting" and exporting American jobs with tax incentives for reinvesting in the U.S. economy.

As he reached the end of his prepared remarks, so carefully crafted, Jackson looked up and ended on a spontaneous Bible-thumping note that drew syncopated reactions from the audience: "Keep your faith! (Don't you know!) I know it's dark (Yeah!) and dangerous. But the morning comes. Believe! (Applause) If I perish! (Yeah!) Let me perish! I'm going (Yeah!) to meet the King." That, not his call for a New Internationalism, is what made it into the next day's New York Times.

Jackson nearly floated out of the hall, laughing loudly in his surprisingly boyish baritone. But by the next morning, Jackson seemed downcast. Senator Biden was on page one of the morning Times, with a statement about his decision to oppose President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The story about Jackson's speech was buried inside, on page 13; all the hard-wrought content' was superseded by an unmoving focus on his style, his "cadence of a Baptist minister," which was "frequently interrupted by applause." In the interview that follows, conducted on the campaign trail and brought up to date in a recent telephone conversation, Jesse Jackson discussed his effort to present new ideas-and his struggle to have them heard.

MOTHER JONES: You seem to think the coverage reflects a bias against you.

JACKSON: I gave a major address about the uneven playing field that American workers are forced to play on, caused because multinational corporations have incentives to move capital abroad and no incentives to reinvest, redevelop, and to retrain workers. Yet the coverage was, "He came, they cheered, they sang, they prayed, he got rousing applause. " Things you wouldn't have had to be present to write about.

MOTHER JONES: You spent a lot of time on that speech.

JACKSON: You know I did. I laid out the dangers of protectionism. Stuff raised in this speech is stuff Wall Street will have to deal with. Investment bankers. The labor unions. Corporate America. But the New York Times didn't report it.

MOTHER JONES. You also attacked the media in that speech.

JACKSON: Well, what you have today is prosecutors leaking news of sweeping indictments, and then relatively few convictions. Ken Gibson of Newark, indicted but not convicted in the courts-yet tried and convicted in the press beforehand. You get a combination of an ambitious state attorney and a hostile press, and you have a dimension of power to struggle against. Every bark is not a bite. Every indictment is not a conviction.

MOTHER JONES: You sound like you expect something directed at you.

JACKSON: I hope it won't happen, but it's not unreasonable to expect it. Many publishers have a vested interest in places where you seek change. They're not the tacit observers who come out of a journalistic cloud to descend on people. They are part of a culture that must be challenged.

MOTHER JONES: But aren't your frequent attacks on reporters, network executives, and newspaper publishers at least strategically unwise?

JACKSON: That's not fair! It's really not fair. I have an analysis of the role the media play in the power structure of this country. Our press is privately owned by wealthy people who have substantial investments in the world economy. And they have power without accountability. Any publisher can make a political judgment and unleash the hounds-or redirect the hounds. That power is very real.

MOTHER JONES: There have been stories saying that your wife, Jackie, opposes taking on the campaign because she's worried about media focus on your private life and because of concern for your safety. True or false?

JACKSON: Untrue. Our concerns about family safety are the same as the Kennedys' would be. Because we face sb much danger. In the last campaign, there were more threats than in any campaign. Last count was 311 threats, and 11 people were actually arrested.

MOTHER JONES: It's not a surprise that the two of you would talk about it.

JACKSON: It's a family concern. My children are not paranoid, but they are sensitive to the danger, the risk. Those with whom we've worked throughout the years, who have accepted high-risk ventures, have to face the very real possibility of violence. So it's always a matter for discussion and prayer and consideration before every major decision.

MOTHER JONES: Was it a key consideration in deciding to run? And how do you talk about it within the family?

JACKSON: It's a major consideration. There are seven of us. And the children get another level of the fallout from a decision like this. So it's another level of family deliberation. We always intend to garner the courage to confirm -our beliefs and goals and do what we must do. There is, sometimes, a fear of going forward. But there's an even greater fear of standing still or going backwards. And there's a fear that you may let people down if you do not affirm your being with courage.

MOTHER JONES: What would you do if Mrs. Jackson and the children said, "We don't think this is the time"?

JACKSON: Oh, boy. I would not resist any such unanimous position. But such is not the case.

MOTHER JONES: In retrospect, how damaging do you think your reference to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown" was to the 1984 campaign?

JACKSON: Not substantial except from the press point of view. I think people who wanted to understand, did. If you call someone something in anger or confrontation, that's one spirit. If you say something that's in bad taste or in jest, no one should take it as an internal scar. Bernard Kalb, who is Jewish, asked on Meet the Press, was I black or American first.

MOTHER JONES: Hold on. He asked whether you were "a black man who happens to be an American running for the presidency or an American who happens to be a black man running for the presidency."

JACKSON: That is really a racist question. But somehow it was permissible.

MOTHER JONES: It is racist. But what does it have to do with your remark?

JACKSON: Both were statements in bad taste. One was turned into a national disgrace. The other was seen as unimportant. The press was really searching for a way to disprove the moral authority I brought to the campaign. They were searching for straws.

MOTHER JONES: After the furor over the remark, you told the Democratic National Convention, "Our communities, black and Jewish, are in anguish, anger, and pain." Didn't it bother you, personally, that you'd contributed to the pain?

JACKSON: Sure, because I don't ever want to hurt nobody. I enjoy relieving people of their pain. People call me for help: a woman came by whose son had been killed by the police last week, and another called because her son is being held hostage somewhere in Africa. I enjoy relieving pain.

MOTHER JONES: You also said during the 1984 campaign that "the biggest contribution that anyone could make to Israel would be to get her neighbors to recognize her. " What have you done in the last three years m pursuit of that goal?

JACKSON: The Middle East policy has degenerated so much under Reagan. More Americans have been held hostage; it's worse for Israelis; it's worse for Arabs. We're marching toward war in the Persian Gulf.

MOTHER JONES: So the possibility of any initiative by you has been diminished?

JACKSON: Yes, everyone's role has been diminished, because what was an attempt to make a moral appeal to get hostages free became selling guns and missiles for hostages. The character of the relationship has changed. It made communication much more difficult.

MOTHER JONES: Supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Arab states criticize you for talking less about the Middle East this year than in 1984. Has your position changed?

JACKSON: No, my Middle East position is the same. It is that until there is justice for everybody, there is not going to be peace for anybody. I recognize Israel's right to exist, with security, with an internationally recognized boundary. The Palestinian people need to be freed of their nomad status; they need a homeland, a passport, like other people. We have to rebuild Lebanon, with the help of other nations, like we did Europe. We need multilateral control of the Persian Gulf. We need to end the war between Iran and Iraq. We need a comprehensive Middle East policy.

MOTHER JONES: In 1984, your campaign was a symbolic upstart. How is 1988 different?

JACKSON: In 1984 we were blazing a trail. We got 3.5 million votes, even from people who were in the throes of disbelief because they'd never imagined it could happen. Now, in 1987, you see strange combinations of ranchers, autoworkers, meat packers, steelworkers, teachers, and firemen-many of whom have been on the right-in coalition with those who have been to the left: blacks, Hispanics, Asians.

MOTHER JONES: You seem to have cooled down your rhetoric. Have you consciously tried to cool down a "hot" image?

JACKSON: I have a much bigger following now, a bigger responsibility. Last time my rhetoric was sufficient to do what I had to do -open up the process, demand room for progressive-thinking people, register new voters. You know there's a right wing and a left wing, and it takes both to fly a plane. My concern is about 85 million voters in neither wing: they're in the belly of the plane. If one perceives that some changes have taken place, they have. I do not resist growing. I do not resist maturing. I do not resist expanding.

MOTHER JONES: In the Firing Line debate last July with the other Democratic candidates, William F. Buckley asked which portraits each of you would replace in the Oval Office. You said take Herbert Hoover down and put Lyndon Baines Johnson up. LBJ? Why?

JACKSON: Lyndon Johnson came in on the wind of tragedy, the assassination. People were very anxious because of his back ground nonsupport for civil rights, being from the South. He rose above his background and achieved greatness. He directed the Voting Rights Act to victory.

MOTHER JONES: For my generation, LBJ symbolizes the Vietnam War more than the Voting Rights Act.

JACKSON: I have to approach the matter with integrity. LBJ ushered in the ending of apartheid in this country. That's a real part of my experience. If I'd had another choice, Carter would be it. His integrity stands as a mountain, with Nixon in one moral valley and Reagan in the other moral valley.

MOTHER JONES: What makes you think voters will elect a different kind of president in 1988?

JACKSON: Reagan is becoming increasingly discredited. He has presided over the most corrupt administration in modem history. Many Americans have such an emotional investment in Reagan that they are slow to admit the error of their ways, but they're getting diminishing returns on their investment. We are now the world's most indebted nation. The extremes of wealth are the greatest they've been for the last 50years. 'Me middle class has been devastated by Reagan. We've lost a million jobs that paid $28,000 a year or more. We've lost a million manufacturing jobs. We've had 600,000 farmers driven from their land.

MOTHER JONES: Why do you speak so much about the farm crisis?

JACKSON: Because I know that if America can turn its back on the family farmer, it's open season on everybody. The farmers defy all stereotypes. You can't call them black or brown, lazy, don't want to work, patriotism questionable. Also, when the middle-American white family farmer identifies with the progressive movement, it suggests there are profound changes possible. I walked down the streets of Cudahy, Wisconsin, with 6,000 workers. On some porches there were American flags, Confederate flags, and Jesse Jackson pictures.

MOTHER JONES: What was your gut-level reaction to seeing the Confederate flag side by side with your picture?

JACKSON: A sense of gratification, a sense of vindication. A sense of joy. I know that, in time, all that separates us from each other is information. When we have access to each other, these walls come down. Many people think they'll find security in the Confederate flag, or a sense of defiance. But, apart from these symbols, we still have the most in common at the plant gate they're closing when the workers have gotten notice, the most in common at the hospital where people died because they couldn't get the yellow card you need to go upstairs where there's a bed waiting for the rich to get sick. To make progress we have to forgive each other, redeem each other, and focus on common ground.

MOTHER JONES: At every campaign stop, you talk about trade, about protectionism.

JACKSON: Yes, because I understand that the old protectionism is like throwing a snowball into a large furnace. Gephardt's legislation, for example, will not protect the American worker from General Electric, the number one exporter from Taiwan, the number two defense contractor, the owner of NBC. Reagan's notion was to give these multinational corporations a big tax break. Upon making a profit they would supposedly reinvest in America, retrain workers, and reindustrialize -because they were so patriotic. When they made big profits they did the opposite. They divested in America. They have tax incentives to encourage them to export jobs. What we must do is shift the incentives to reinvest in America.

MOTHER JONES: How do you size up your primary opponents?

JACKSON: There is no hostility between us.

MOTHER JONES: The statement by Senator Biden that you're not qualified to be president and that he wouldn't accept you as a vice presidential nominee on the ticket-that didn't throw the gauntlet down between you?

JACKSON: That was one of his impetuous statements. Since that time he has made expressions of amends. Suffice it to say the Constitution says I'm qualified. And I have more experience in foreign policy than anybody else running. More experience in southern Africa, the Middle East, Central America, the Caribbean. I also have registered more Democrats than anyone alive. I have confronted more corporations. I have organized more workers. I have taken more risks,

MOTHER JONES: You haven't held public office before, though.

JACKSON: There is no training ground to be president. So much of it is on-the-job training. Some leaders have experience inside the government, and other leaders have experience outside the government. What do leaders do but make public policy? I made a decision to influence public policy about the right to vote. I did it with bodily risk. I made a judgment about open housing with Dr. King in Chicago. I made a judgment about the Vietnam War. I made a judgment that we can relate to Cuba because it's within our interest to do so to expand our influence in the hemisphere.

MOTHER JONES: But since you're not an officeholder, how can we judge how responsive you would be in a position of power? One reporter put the problem this way: "He's got no board of directors or stockholders fussing about profits. The voters, the usual path of leadership in this country, can't turn him out or shut him up either, because Jesse hasn't been elected to anything. Jesse appointed Jesse-and Jesse accepted."

JACKSON: That's not really true. For the past 20 years I have spoken to 10,000 people a week, and those people who invite me to speak are confirming my leadership. Three and-a-half million people affirmed my leadership. I have not been sponsored by a rich uncle. I have been with organizations from the ground up-grass roots people-which is really the long way home.

MOTHER JONES: Hasn't it been an uphill fight to exert influence inside the Democratic Party? In a speech last November you acknowledged that it was a "day-to-day struggle" to be taken seriously by Democratic Party officials, And last January, a group of wealthy party fund-raisers met to make decisions about which candidate to support without inviting you to meet with them-the only candidate they snubbed. Aren't you frozen out?

JACKSON: No, many of those walls have melted. Our showing at the polls is substantial, and it will get stronger. The reality is that none of the worst fears of those fund-raisers were realized in 1984: we didn't divide the party. The fact is that we expanded the party and became the progressive wing. We added two million new voters who voted Democratic. I've focused on common ground, and the comfort level has risen. The party wants to expand, but often leaders choose to maintain control over winning. You can secure control, but you can't win unless you expand. So it was like hot a cold water coming together. At first there was trauma. But then the cold water got a little warmer and the hot water got a little cooler.

MOTHER JONES: Some of the criticism aimed at you hasn't cooled. Juan Williams, a reporter with the Washington Post who was generally supportive of your campaign in 1984, recently wrote a commentary contending that a Jackson campaign is bad for blacks in 1988. Williams argues that if you monopolize the black vote, it will take the other candidates off the hook, and they will not compete for support from blacks.

JACKSON: It's one writer versus the world. Nineteen of 23 Black Congressional Caucus members have signed on. Apparently they don't hold his point of view. Most of the urban mayors have signed on. Apparently they don't hold his point of view.

MOTHER JONES: Williams doesn't deny that you have popular support.

JACKSON: That's important.

MOTHER JONES: But he does contend that the net effect of the Jackson campaign in 1988 will be to throttle the possibility of younger black leaders emerging on the national stage.

JACKSON: That's silly. Never has there been so much competition for the black vote. And there are no other blacks right now who are considering running for the presidency. So my campaign is the best way to assure that the progressives will be on the agenda, will be on the political stage in this country. What I'm doing is enhancing black and progressive politics. You can't write South Africa out of this campaign. You can't write Central America out of this campaign. You can't write transnational corporations out of this campaign. You can't write civil rights out of this campaign.

MOTHER JONES: Still, you continue to be discounted as a serious contender, as a contender who could be president. How do you make sense of that?

JACKSON: I don't make any sense of it. I wish being number one in the polls had simply forced many writers to break off their pens or break the mold or to sweat in contradiction. They're not taking reality into account. The reality of new voters, new moods. I represent people outside of a relatively small Washington circle.

MOTHER JONES: You like to remind audiences that the United States is only 5 percent of the world's population.

JACKSON: Yeah, and when Gorbachev and Reagan had their summit meeting in Reykjavic, they represented only one-tenth of the world's population. It was a minority meeting.

MOTHER JONES: Why do you stress that point?

JACKSON: Because our brand of foreign policy is contemptuous of the Third World and foreign people. Our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy and attitudes. Just as we cannot relate to black, Hispanic, or Asian people in this country, we do an even worse job of relating to

people who live north and south. We must overcome that infirmity if we are to maintain our stature as a respected world power. In Central America we mine harbors. We should be shipping oil rigs and sending technicians. We've got to end the war between Iran and Iraq, because it's going to continue blowing up in our faces. We've got to have a comprehensive Middle East peace plan. We need multilateral control of the Persian Gulf.

MOTHER JONES: Multilateral control? We're having a hard time even getting T

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