In the dawning era of Barack Obama (and on the morning after Al Sharpton), Jesse Jackson may look a little like yesterday's candidate. Yet he still got a tumultuous, cheering welcome from hundreds of activists at a conference in Cambridge, Mass., on Thursday afternoon.
Titled "Take Back America" and sponsored by the labor-backed Campaign for America's Future, the discussions featured speakers from major organizations and unions on the party's left wing. For an hour or so before Jackson arrived, organizers talked about their plans to register and mobilize millions of voters in battleground states, especially in African-American, Latino and heavily unionized communities.
Although Jackson didn't draw the kind of rock-star adulation lavished on Michael Moore and Howard Dean in the same venue two days ago, he arrived with his own agenda. The reverend wanted to inspire this crowd -- which he surely did, eventually.
The reverend's rambling, 40-minute sermon began with reminiscences about his father's military service in World War II and slogged through the historic moments of the civil rights movement. Jackson eventually wound around to his real point: He wants everyone to remember that he ran for president 20 years ago, before anyone had ever heard of that skinny kid with the funny name who gave the best speech at the convention.
"Nineteen eighty-four was the presidential campaign," he intoned, almost as if there had never been any other presidential campaign. "We need to analyze what made that campaign different." The main thing that made his '84 campaign unique, as he accurately recalled, was his ability back then to unite a number of white working-class voters with his black and Hispanic base, bringing him high levels of support in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. He wants to make larger claims on history, however, before Obama eclipses him.
For example, he said that even if nobody else realized it in 1984, the Democrats chose Geraldine Ferraro as the first woman nominated for vice president on a major party ticket because of the Jackson campaign. He also argued that the two-state Mideast policy he had articulated led to the meeting between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 10 years later.
His '84 campaign also deserved a share of credit, he suggested, for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa and a few other things. From time to time, when he thought attention might be drifting away, he'd ask, "Am I here by myself?" or "Am I making sense to you guys?" A reassuring wave of applause would quickly follow.
When he had exhausted his memories of '84, he moved on to the need for more black voter registration. Always a timely topic, it is also a bit timeworn, especially for Jackson. He ran through the numbers of unregistered African-Americans in various Southern states, claiming a bit implausibly that Obama could be joined by a brother or sister if only the white Democratic establishment would pay heed. Still, Jackson showed that he has plenty of energy and at least a few good lines. "A Christian conservative is a contradiction in terms!" he bellowed at one point, drawing loud cheers. His peroration -- "America is a liberal idea!" -- brought the activists to their feet. His parting words to the Kerry skeptics on the left were simple. "Don't feel compromised. Feel smart enough to make wise strategic choices." And, he added, don't worry too much about the nominee's acceptance speech.
"If Kerry came out tonight and lost his voice -- and his two front teeth -- and said I will appoint a civilized Supreme Court, that's enough for me!" It was enough for the wildly applauding audience, too.