A moment when America’s ethnic politics was different

Sam Smith – Last night, on my weekly gig with Mark Thompson on Sirius XM, I mentioned that if I had been advising Barack Obama, I would have suggested that he run as a black but once in office become a living symbol of biracial America. After all, he spent more time at Harvard Law School than with any black parent growing up. And he could have used his personal cross-ethnic experiences to serve as a leader and mediator for a culturally conflicted America. Instead he chose to instruct Americans like a law professor and it didn’t work all that well.

Mark, like most to whom I have mentioned this heretical thought, didn’t agree. Thinking about it later, I realized that one of the reasons I believe this would have been possible was because I still remember something most have forgotten: Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, during which he was cross-ethnic from the start. Of course, Jackson didn’t win, but the cross-cultural surge of his campaign – albeit brief – was a reminder that minorities can not only be equal, they can lead.

Here are a few clips from the Progressive Review during this period:

Tom Wicker of the New York Times recently commented, “If you think Jesse Jackson is just the ‘black candidate’ for president, you’d better think again — and listen.” Wicker noted Jackson’s recent successes with an all-white college audience in Iowa and at a New York City political party. In Iowa, where Jackson is running hard, editor Jim Cannon of the Des Moines Register says: “I haven’t seen anyone come into Iowa with a message as appealing as his. When he asks why the government can bail out Chrysler and Continental Illinois but can’t save a farmer from foreclosure — that’s a question that plays on Main Street, Iowa.”

In one of the rare interesting developments in the 1988 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Jesse Jackson in January attracted 800 people to a church potluck supper in Greenfield, Iowa — an all-white town of 2500. The 800 turned out despite the competing attraction of the Super Bowl and, says the Democratic state chair, “I know skeptics who came away awe-struck.” Bonnie Campbell added: “He talks about problems that ordinary people are experiencing.” Jackson’s trip was organized by a local UAW official, several churches, some party activists and the Farm Unity Coalition. Said Rev. David Ostendorf, a leader of Farm Unity, Jackson is “the only person who is speaking the truth, and he’s articulating the problems in the country. You don’t ordinarily get a crowd like this in southwest Iowa.”

Jackson has brought into his coalition the imaginative progressive of Vermont, William Wimpinsinger of the Machinists Union, the United Farm Alliance, Kenneth Blaylock of the AFGE, New Mexico governor Tony Anaya, Michael Harrington, independent oil producers, Hormel strikers, feminists, environmentalists and others. In some cases, the politics of those in the coalition may prove to be self- contradictory and there may be many deserters when and if Jackson announces for president, but for the moment Jackson has actually made the rainbow come alive. This is not only an achievement for black America; it is one for all progressives, too long bogged down in their intramural concerns and inability to trust one another.

The fact that Jesse Jackson has been leading [in 1987] in the Democratic polls is one of those situations that tries the patience of the media. There is no worse crisis to the journalistic mind than a stereotype run amuck. Thus there has been an extraordinary amount of explanation, qualification and justification for the appearance of Jackson ahead of such jewels of the Democratic Party as Biden, Babbitt and Gephardt.

Despite the best efforts of the columnoids to inject some life into the Democratic contest, the white division of the Democratic league has all the excitement of inventory day at a hardware store. What is interesting is that this time Jackson is running as much more than a black candidate. In fact, Jackson is running as the most progressive presidential candidate of a major party since Henry Wallace.

There is a story going the rounds that Jackson and Biden shared a platform in Iowa. ,Jackson’s populist rhetoric was cheered and applauded; while Biden’s speech of ’60s liberal idealism, filled with quotes from Martin Luther King and the rights of the oppressed, fell flat. Afterwards, Jackson put his arm on Biden’s shoulder and said, “Joe, you should have asked me. That civil rights crap just doesn’t go anymore.” True or not, the tale does reflect Jackson’s transition since 1984 from being an ethnic favorite son to being the first black crossover candidate.  This time, Jackson is really trying to get white votes. The media has downplayed this not necessarily out of ethnic bias, but because it has type-cast Jackson as it type-casts all politicians. Jackson’s job is to be the black candidate. But imagine for a moment that Jackson was white. The story would be quite different . Imagine a white populist, at odds with many of the policies of mainstream Republicans and Democrats, standing up and saying to thunderous applause, as Jackson did in Lexington, “l went to the Mideast and got Navy flier Robert Goodman out and didn’t leave any arms. I went to Cuba and brought back hostages and took Castro to church for the first time in 30 years.” Imagine this white populist threatening the whole structure of the corporate Democratic Party by pulling better in the polls than the prides of Paul Kirk , Nathan Landow and Charles Robb. Would we hear more about Jackson then? Of course.

Just change Jackson’s color and he would be the major political story of the year.  We would have, among other things, a real campaign. It would not necessarily mean that Jackson would win. His color is protective as well as an obstacle. A white candidate like Jackson would not be immune to the same personal scrutiny as Hart got. The policies and accounts of PUSH would be gone over in detail.  And the questions that have been asked of other charismatic political figures – what does he believe and how long will he believe it?­ would be put to Jackson as well.As one non-Jackson supporter put it in ’84: “I remember Jesse before he became a virgin.” But at least Jackson would be treated with less condescension; his views would get more attention than his color; and the voters would discover that there still are a few choices left in politics. Kirk, Landow, Robb and the rest of the Democratic Party’s National Security Council can be grateful that Jesse Jackson is not white. For if he were, the Democratic Party might be on the verge of real change.

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