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Jesse Goes Country

Jackson's play for the mainstream Democratic vote.

THE QUESTION sounded innocent enough. During a breakfast with reporters at Washington's Sheraton Carlton Hotel on June 5, Jesse Jackson was asked: Public opinion polls show that Europeans have far more confidence in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a peacemaker than they do in President Reagan—does he share their view?

Jackson didn't hesitate. Neglecting Gorbachev, he went after Reagan, The president's foreign policy has "failed.” He has made "dangerous move." He has tolerated apartheid in South Africa too long, and has "sent frightening signals to people in Europe." People "sense" far more activity on behalf of arms control from Gorbachev, And Reagan's policy of aiding the contra rebels in Nicaragua is "illegal and unnecessary.”

Suddenly Jackson caught himself and began pulling back from his one-sided assault on Reagan, "I don't have much confidence in either of them," he said. Still, "one senses a serious initiative from [Gorbachev's] side on arms reduction. On the other hand, President Reagan has started on arms reduction rather late." Jackson seemed unsure how much further to retreat. "I sleep under Mr. Reagan every night," he said, straining now. A trace of anxiety was visible on his face. Finally he blurted, "I obviously have more confidence in Mr. Reagan. I've slept under Mr. Reagan for seven years—uneasy, I wouldn't want to sleep under Mr. Gorbachev for one night."

Any other candidate for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination would have found that question a snap: Reagan's no day at the beach, but he beats Gorbachev. For Jackson, the question caused a tense and awkward episode. His instinct to zero in on Reagan was at war with his political savvy, which told him he'd better not come off as Gorbo's shill.

Jackson's split personality is tormenting his new bid for the presidency. Both his ideological inclinations, which are generally hard left, and his public style, which is invariably histrionic and confrontational, are perfectly suited for a protest candidacy. In 1984 Jackson was satisfied to be a protest candidate, stressing racial issues and locking up the black vote. He never competed seriously for the nomination. This time he wants to do exactly that by attracting hordes of white voters. If muting his ideology and toning down his style will help, he's willing to try. The trouble is, posing as a conventional candidate isn't easy for Jackson.

Sometimes he can pull it off. At a Washington roast of Senator Bill Bradley on June 23, Jackson stole the show. On the way to the podium, he snatched up a huge sign that designated the table of supporters of Senator Joseph Biden, a rival in the presidential race. Biden has been Jackson's nemesis since the senator declared in early June that he would never choose Jackson as his vice presidential running mate. Jackson was affronted. Anyway, he playfully waved the sign, and referred humorously in his remarks to "Vice President Biden." Jackson also had the funniest zingers about Bradley. He joked that Bradley overcame great odds—white skin, an upper-middle-class background—to become a basketball star. As a child Bradley used to chant, "I AM SOMEBODY." Bradley "represents the Uncle Tom's Cabin of our day," When Jackson finished, he gave Bradley a black power handshake.

Issues weren't discussed at the roast. When they come up, as they did at the Democratic presidential debate in Houston on July 1 moderated by William F, Buckley Jr,, Jackson stiffens. He is keen on increasing what he calls "the comfort level" of whites with his candidacy, and as a result his answers in the debate were dry and bland. Jackson is an effective rabble-rouser. When he tries to be responsible and programmatic, he's boring. The opening question—Whose picture would you take down from the Oval Office and whose would you put up?—had been given to the candidates beforehand, Jackson played it straight, and was miffed that the other candidates didn't. He said he'd take down Herbert Hoover's, and he incorrectly blamed Hoover for "the famous Palmer raids violating basic human rights," The Palmer raids occurred in 1919, a decade before Hoover became president. In a stab at sounding mainstream, Jackson said he would put Lyndon B. Johnson's picture up. The rest of Jackson's responses were snippets from his speeches. The only spark came at the end when, alone among the candidates, he rose to deliver his conclusion. But he spoke too long, touching on a laundry list of issues, and Buckley had to cut him off.

A week later Jackson addressed the NAACP at its annual convention in New York, He gave two speeches, back to back, each 20 minutes long. He explained to me later that there are two agendas in his campaign, one substantive, one inspirational. The two don't mix well. Jackson said they are like hot and cold running water, which is one of his all-purpose analogies, "When it first hits, it's volatile. The more it goes down the stream, the temperature evens out,"

At the NAACP, the substantive speech seemed to be for whites and the press, the inspirational one for the predominantly black audience. The first he read methodically from a prepared text. It was tedious, except when he took a few shots at Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, and pandered to a voting bloc by saying a Hispanic should be nominated in Bork's place. He drew few cheers. When the text ended, Jackson turned inspirational. He preached, "You're giants. Drop this grasshopper complex," He suggested that innocent black politicians—he mentioned, among others, Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta, Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, and Georgia legislator Julian Bond—are being targeted by racist prosecutors and white reporters, "It's spreading like political AIDS across the country," he said. The crowd loved every word.

Therein lies the problem of style and substance for Jackson. It's a problem even with his ideology tamed. When he talks up a five-point program for this or that, his charisma vanishes. When he rants in Southern preacher fashion, he stirs only those who already back him, blacks. Three hours after his NAACP speech, Jackson spoke to the New York chapter of Americans for Democratic Action and the New Democratic Coalition, The audience of 300 people was three-quarters white. He spoke passionately and substantively. Afterward he pleaded for funds, "We need right-now money," he said. He asked those willing to pledge $1,000 to stand, A dozen people did, all blacks. More blacks stood to pledge $500 and $250, No whites got up until Jackson got down to $100 and $50, Jackson's style had overpowered his substance.

FOR NOW, the Jackson campaign has two overriding challenges. He has the threshold task of persuading voters that he isn't a fringe candidate and can actually win the nomination. And he must reach far beyond his political base in the black community and attract white and Hispanic support. Both are difficult, but Jackson starts from a considerably stronger position than he did in 1984, Back then he announced late, and faced a formidable frontrunner, Walter Mondale, who had already gathered the support of many black leaders. Now he's running early in a wide-open race in which none of the six white candidates appears to have great appeal to blacks. His base, 15 percent to 20 percent of the Democratic primary vote, is secure. And black leaders are more receptive. In 1984 NAACP president Benjamin Hooks was dead set against Jackson's running. When Jackson appeared at the NAACP convention in July, Hooks embraced him enthusiastically.

But can Jackson win? In his speeches, he dwells on 1984 numbers, noting that he got 3.5 million votes in the primaries, while Mondale got 6.7 million. Then in the general election Mondale got 10.6 million black votes. In other words, Mondale got "four million more [black votes] than the whole nation gave him" in the primaries, Jackson argues that these 10.6 million, or at least a large percentage of them, are his in the 1988 primaries. His conclusion: "We have the numbers," In truth, this recitation proves nothing more than that black voters, like white voters, turn out in greater number for a general election. Just because they vote in the fall doesn't mean they'll vote in the winter and spring. If they didn't in 1984, when the Jackson campaign became a civil rights crusade in the black community, why would they in 1988? Jackson has no answer.

Nor does he for the analysis of Thomas Cavanagh, an expert on black politics at the National Academy of Sciences. In a 1985 monograph, Cavanagh said racial antipathy against a black candidate has ebbed but hardly vanished. In a Gallup Poll, only 16 percent of the electorate said they opposed a black candidate and seven percent expressed no opinion, though Cavanagh said these were merely "embarrassed to admit their prejudice to a pollster," The result is a 23 percent handicap for a black presidential candidate, leaving 7 percent of the electorate from which to build a coalition. To win a majority in the general election, a black must attract 65 percent of the non-racist part of the electorate. This may not mean that a black can't win, though Cavanagh thinks that is the case. But it does put Jackson at a severe disadvantage.

The group that is least convinced about Jackson's ability to win is black mayors. Coleman Young of Detroit, Richard Arrington of Birmingham, Young of Atlanta, Lottie Shackleford of Little Rock, Harvey Gantt of Charlotte—none is for Jackson, Black mayors are "more willing to go on record saying they're not for Jackson," explained Linda Williams, an analyst for the Joint Center for Political Studies, "This is pragmatism; They want the candidate who can win. They want federal aid flowing to their cities again," But they don't think Jackson will ever be in a position to provide it.

He disagrees. Maybe he's dreaming, but he believes he can win the nomination and the presidency. "The basic difference between now and 1984 is his eyes-on-the-prize strategy," said Ann Lewis, who was national director of Americans for Democratic Action until she stepped down on July 1.  With advice from Lewis, among others, Jackson has whittled off some of his rougher edges and fashioned a populist pitch aimed at drawing working-class whites into a coalition with blacks. He no longer stresses racial issues, unless addressing a black group. Even then, he dwells on populist economic themes.

JACKSON’S WHIPPING boy is the multinational corporation, a safe enough target for a Democrat. He blames it for every economic trouble: unemployment, farm foreclosures, trade deficit, budget deficit. Cavanagh said Jackson has emerged as "a Michael Harrington social democrat." In the speech he read to the NAACP, Jackson said that "too many Americans have a simplistic theory" about economic dislocation. "It is the result of the evil machinations of the Japanese, or the Mexicans, the West Germans, or the South Koreans. Sometimes this conspiracy theory gets dangerously nationalistic, or even racist," In the ADA speech, Jackson recalled the "guy in Chicago [who] lost his job and shot a Toyota six times—autocide."

Jackson argued that "our jobs are not being taken by South Koreans and Taiwanese. They are being taken to South Korea and Taiwan by U.S. companies with tax incentives." In both countries, "slave labor" flourishes. His evidence is that wages are lower and workers "repressed" in these countries, strong unions are not allowed, and health and safety standards in the workplace are poor. This gives these countries a "structural" advantage in economic competition. American workers are as good as ever, according to Jackson. It's simply that the "playing field" is tilted against them.

At every opportunity, Jackson insists he is not a protectionist. He denounces the Gephardt amendment as "veiled protectionism. We should not be misled by proposals that will not protect the worker, the consumer, or reduce the trade imbalance significantly, could lead to a trade war which would hurt workers even more, and possibly trigger a worldwide recession or depression." Yet he favors legislation that would "make the repression of workers' rights an unfair trade practice." This would have the same effect as the Gephardt amendment, blocking imports from Taiwan and South Korea and many more countries. "American multinationals would not be able to hire repressed labor abroad and fire free labor at home," he told the NAACP.

He would go further. "Capital does not follow conscience," he told me. "It follows incentives, and sometimes constraints." Multinationals such as General Electric and General Motors now "have a double incentive to leave our economy. They get the tax incentive here to go and the [foreign] government provides incentives at that end—the repressed labor and so on." Jackson would change the tax code to punish companies that shift jobs overseas. If that failed, he would block them by fiat. I asked Jackson if this wouldn't make these companies less competitive. "They may be less competitive with each other on this playing field," he said, "but we've got to change the playing field." One of his schemes for doing that involves "enforceable international laws against global union-busting, racism, sexism, and sweatshops. By incentives, constraints, or both, multinational labor exportation and exploitation must end." Don't hold your breath.

JACKSON HAS a second plan for promoting "the four R's"—research, reinvestment, retraining, and reindustrialization—that involves dipping into the $2 trillion held by pension funds. "This is a massive pool of capital which is being used ineffectively for the workers whose money it is." If workers or union leaders or elected officials direct the investments by their pension funds, "we can act to rebuild America," Jackson told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on June 15. The money—$100 billion or $200 billion—would be guaranteed by the federal government and put in an American Investment Bank. This institution would use the money to finance "affordable housing," energy-efficient transit, infrastructure and "job creation." According to Jackson, the federal taxpayer wouldn't have to foot any of the bill.

Taxpayers should be so lucky. The investments to which Jackson would devote pension fund resources are risky and probably unprofitable. Since they lack private funding, they've already failed the market test. New housing would be partly for the homeless, who won't be able to pay for it. Mass transit is a profitable enterprise practically nowhere. Infrastructure is public. Who would pay for it? The answer is the taxpayers. Jackson may have worthy projects in mind. But when pension fund managers ask for their money back with a reasonable rate of return, the taxpayers would have to step in, since they'd guaranteed the money.

For all the flaws in his proposals, Jackson's brand of populism has a potentially large constituency in the Democratic Party. Some of his rhetoric is classic. Gains by working people haven't come with help from "a rich banker, a senator, a Harvard-trained lawyer, or a yachtsman." And "corporate reform" has a nice ring to it. His agricultural program has an even more direct appeal to farmers. "Ranchers and farmers have fed America and the world," he told the Louisiana legislature on May 15. "They deserve mercy, a moratorium, a restructuring of their debt, supply management, parity, and markets. Farmers don't want a handout, they want a helping hand." Of course what Jackson described is a lavish handout to a politically important special interest group.

Jackson's populist message is aimed at the voting bloc least likely to support him at the polls, working-class whites. On top of their racial antipathy, they're likely to balk at his foreign policy views, even softened versions of them. Todd Domke, a Republican political consultant, says Jackson needs to make these views come across as "antiestablishment rather than anti-American." But Jackson hasn't managed this. In a speech at West Point last February 19, a speech cited by Jackson aides as a fair expression of his national security policy, he talked only about weapons systems he would cut and defense obligations he might jettison. "I would rather stand with you than cower behind Star Wars," he said. "New solutions" are needed, but he offered none. This approach may appeal to another Democratic bloc, yuppies, but not to working-class whites. But Jackson stands little chance of getting the vote of yuppies. They don't like his economic populism.

In his stump speeches, Jackson wisely skirts foreign policy. But in Q-and-A's with audiences, interviews, and debates, his Third World attitudes bubble up. Jackson had a perfect opportunity to make political points after his visit to Cuba in 1984. All he had to do was criticize Castro for the repression and economic stagnation his dictatorship has caused. He would have gotten credit for bringing back Castro's nose. Instead he acted like a Castro groupie.

When Buckley raised in the Houston debate Jackson's having bellowed in Havana in 1984, "Long Live Fidel Castro," Jackson said he hoped Castro will "change his ways." But he took umbrage at the criticism of Castro by three other presidential candidates. Senators Albert Gore and Paul Simon and Representative Richard Gephardt. "Gephardt has never met Castro," Jackson huffed later. And he complained personally to Simon for having said he didn't like Castro while never having met him. Jackson blames the Reagan administration, not Castro, for the bad relationship between the United States and Cuba. "A window was open there. This administration is just so blinded by ideology, it seems." I asked Jackson if Castro's terrible human rights record didn't daunt him. He responded that Cuba was no worse off than this country was 30 years after the revolution, when blacks were slaves and women couldn't vote.

Nor is Jackson willing to temper his criticism of Reagan for the bombing of Libya last year. At the founding convention of his Rainbow Coalition in April 1986, he condemned the administration's "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth approach … We are bombing ourselves into a corner." When I interviewed him on July 9, Jackson quibbled with Reagan's justification for the bombing raid. Theraid was in response to a disco bombing in Berlin. Jackson said there is no proof that a radio message was sent from Tripoli to Libyans in East Germany ordering them to bomb the disco. "When all the dust settled, it was never determined that that was the cause of the bombing," said Jackson. Even if this were true, it's not a point that will make Jackson attractive to white working stiffs.

The irony of Jackson's candidacy is that the white voting bloc traditionally most sympathetic to black office-seekers is all but off-limits to him: Jews. Jackson has toned down his views on the Middle East. He advocates a Palestinian "homeland" instead of a “state." He never mentions PLO leader Yasir Arafat, once his ally. "He's not saying anything this year that hasn't been said on the floor of the Knesset [Israeli parliament], and not necessarily by the left wing of the Labor Party," said Ann Lewis.

But Jackson can bring himself only so far. He would be more acceptable to Jewish voters if he renounced Black Muslim Louis Farrakhan. He won't. He said on the "Donahue" show on May 28 that he dealt with the Farrakhan issue adequately in 1984. "That issue is not a factor in our campaign," he said. Likewise, Jewish opposition might ease if Jackson suppressed his anti-Israel sentiments. But last October he signed a magazine ad demanding that Reagan bar Israel's new military attache to the United States, Gen. Amos Yaron. The ad falsely accused Israeli troops of aiding the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982. Sometimes, hard as he tries, Jackson can't keep a strongly held opinion down.

Tracey Longo helped in the research of this article.

This article originally ran in the August 3, 1987 issue of the magazine.