God bless Jesse Jackson

Conservatives and liberals alike love to bash him, but without the reverend's work in Florida, Gore wouldn't have had a prayer.

By Kevin Sweeney

Published December 1, 2000 11:36PM (EST)

There are television cameras in South Florida. And angry partisans. Jesse Jackson is there, too. Surprise, surprise.

So go the snide asides from the media and the political elites, both liberal and conservative.

The conservative hatred of Jackson is understandable, obvious even. What startles is the extent to which liberal leaders slam him, too. Certainly his craving for the camera costs him fans in the Democratic Party. But the cameras swarmed Florida in November largely because Jesse Jackson was there, often off-camera, in September and October. Were it not for his relentless campaigning, the vote in Florida would not have been close.

Jackson traveled more on behalf of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman than anyone other than Gore, including Lieberman. He did more events, logged more miles and put in more nights on the road. At preelection appearances in Florida, he highlighted Jeb Bush's attacks on affirmative action and talked of the need to vote. His efforts led to a rousing turnout among the state's black voters -- who voted in higher percentages than the rest of Florida and went from 10 percent of the turnout in 1996 to 15 percent in 2000. He is no moth hovering at the media flame; he is in this case very much the heat. No Jackson, no cliffhanger in Florida. End of story.

Jackson doesn't merely talk; he listens. He shows up in places where people feel aggrieved, hurt or disenfranchised. He doesn't steal their thunder, but presents their arguments forcefully, respectfully and with dignity. He elevates their complaints and then ushers the parties into a dialogue. That's right: The cameras leave and he keeps listening, talking, working things through.

He is willing to linger, often the price of connecting with another's humanity. I recall a moment on the tarmac at the Oakland, Calif., airport in 1988. His entourage was already late, but we were about to board and fly onward. As Jackson approached the stairway, he saw a dozen airline workers lined up outside a maintenance hanger, all hoping for a glimpse of him. He waved, and then stopped. He walked the hundred yards, shook each of their hands, shared some words. The crisp campaign schedule again had to be scrapped. But it was a lesson I'll never forget.

Part of the problem is that Jackson is most comfortable in a place in which the liberal elite is not: church. Faith is real in his world, informing his understanding of people and situations: No one's cry is less worthy than another's, no sinner beyond redemption. The media elite is likewise uncomfortable with rhetoric that rains down like the waters and rhymes like a mighty stream. "Up with hope" seems too rhythmic, too simple, too inflected with dialect (read whatever you want into those terms) to be, well, smart.

But smart it is. In these cold and rational times, he is passionate. Passion translates into over-the-top for Americans; it's too much to handle in public. In politics, passion complicates the story, taking it off message. Jackson talks about racism in Florida -- raising the specter of racial profiling within proximity of the voting booth -- while others try to keep the focus on more technical issues.

If this is simply a job for the lawyers, passion has no place. But Jackson is one of the few American leaders to bring both passion and reason to public life. And on the Florida mess, he is smarter than Al Gore. There is a world of difference between saying, as Gore does, "We want a fair and accurate count in Florida," and saying, as Jackson does, that "Every vote must count." Gore's refrain isn't persuading public opinion. Jackson's is a statement Democrats can build on. Your vote must count, he is saying. And he is right.

He has consistently been right -- and ahead of his time. Of course he was right on the question of civil rights. But he was among the first to shift the fulcrum of equality to a point that measured economic gains. Mixing in economics, not just focusing on race, caused tension among civil rights leaders at the time, but it led to important changes in the movement. Along the way, it provided a vehicle to build important alliances with working-class whites.

Likewise, the notion of self-help, of getting the poor or unemployed to accept personal responsibility, was a central component of Operation PUSH 15 years before President Clinton used it as a platform for the presidency. Jackson had thought this one through long before others had. He was among the first to focus on environmental justice. He saw a potential schism among progressives, with some focusing on humanity and others on a broader understanding of nature. It's all about respect, he said, for nature and humans. In pursuing this line, he sought to build bridges between environmentalists, unions, blacks and Hispanics. The end goal remains distant.

His current push, the Wall Street Project, attempts to get major corporations to see ethnic minorities not as markets but as partners. It's the first step in reversing an income transfer that reserves its greatest rewards for those at the top.

Paul Tully, the late and legendary political activist (he and I worked together on Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign), said he would always "work for the most progressive candidate who can get elected." Jackson, alas, could not be Tully's candidate. But Jesse Jackson just happens to be the person who embraces the most progressive viewpoint that will be tolerated in American society. He holds it, shapes it and is not resentful when it finally gains the more legitimate embrace of liberal white elites.

Florida is the current venue for the debate about justice in America. I'm grateful that Jesse Jackson is there. And I'm glad the cameras are there as well.

Kevin Sweeney

Kevin J. Sweeney, an environmental consultant in Piedmont, Calif., served as press secretary to former Sen. Gary Hart.

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2000 Elections Al Gore