An overflow crowd in the gym at Ohio’s University of Akron was listening to one of Jesse Jackson’s flights of rhetoric last week
when a white man leaped to his feet in the bleachers and tried to shout him down. But as angry spectators turned on the heckler, the Democratic presidential hopeful urged his supporters: “Don’t react. Be civilized, now.”
Jackson’s measured response typified his behavior throughout his landmark run for the White House. But in the wake of a crushing defeat—67 per cent to 27 per cent—by Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in Pennsylvania’s April 26 primary, Jackson had begun to lose his political self-control. With Dukakis leading—1,255 delegates to Jackson’s 856 —pundits were predicting another win for the governor in the Ohio primary this week. Betraying a rare flash of anger, Jackson lashed out at media “barracudas” who were already writing his campaign’s obituary. And at a rally in Canton, Ohio, he vowed that he would stay in the race until the final June 7 primary in California.
“Don’t let them tell you it’s all over,” Jackson told a cheering audience. “If the election is all over, you
don’t count. The fight has just begun.” That show of defiance underlined the dilemma facing the Democrats over what many refer to as the “Jackson factor.” As party officials discreetly worked to turn Dukakis’s delegate lead into a show of unity that would secure him the nomination on the first ballot at July’s Democratic convention in Atlanta, they risked
alienating Jackson and his huge constituency—both essential to a Democratic victory in the election next fall. In fact, Dukakis, who stayed in Boston most of last week, already seemed to be positioning himself for the fall campaign against George Bush, who himself picked up 67 more delegates in Pennsylvania’s Republican contest.
That gave the U.S. vice-president a total of 1,156 delegates, 17 more than the 1,139 he needed to secure his party’s presidential nomination.
Bush set the tone for the campaign by attacking the governor’s ignorance of foreign policy. Declared Bush: “The only experience Dukakis has had in foreign affairs is when he’s eaten at the International House of Pancakes.”
Dukakis responded that for all his experience, the vice-president “sat there and did nothing while we engaged in one of the most misguided adventures in the history of American foreign policy”—the Iran-contra affair.
But clearly, Jackson did not consider it a two-way fight. Declared the black preacher: “Bush wants to maintain Reaganomics. Dukakis wants to manage Reaganomics. I want to reverse Reaganomics.” And claiming that he offered “the only real alternative to Reaganomics,” Jackson demanded, “In Washington come next January, do you want an apologist, a manager or a fighter?”
Still, Jackson faced turmoil within his own camp. Exhausted from campaigning at a pace that one aide de-
scribed as “almost beyond the limits of human endurance,” he had left his top advisers to act increasingly as his strategists and spokesmen. But last week it became evident that they were themselves nourishing the news media’s post-mortems on his campaign. In a session with reporters on a campaign bus in Cincinnati on Wednesday, Jackson’s campaign manager, Gerald
Austin, portrayed Jackson’s chances for the nomination in the past tense and suggested that he remained in the race only to score points of principle. That night in a closed meeting of top aides, Jackson reportedly took Austin to task for speculating in defeatist tones to reporters on the bus. And the next morning Jackson publicly repudiated Austin’s comments. Said Jackson: “Those statements are utterly untrue and do not represent the spirit and the thrust of this campaign nor our work.” He added, “There is no source more credible about the state of our campaign than Jesse Jackson.”
Jackson’s outbursts reflect his considerable political wisdom. By defying predictions and representing himself as still having a serious chance of win-
ning the nomination, he is once again raising the expectations .of the millions of blacks and other minority voters who have supported him. Now, if he appears to be tricked out of the nomination in a backroom deal with the party’s 645 so-called superdelegates, those hopes could be dashed. Should that happen, analysts predict, his supporters could stage an unspoken protest by simply not voting on election day, although that could help Bush and the Republicans triumph.
Even if Jackson is seen to lose the nomination in a fair fight, some of his supporters say that they would boycott the November election. Angela Byrd, for one, a Cincinnati Internal Revenue Service examiner, declared, “I would not vote for Dukakis because I don’t think there is that much difference between Dukakis and Bush.”
What attracted her, she said, was Jackson’s message of social and economic justice, as well as the notion that a fellow black could emerge as a serious contender. Added Byrd: “I haven’t really felt as excited about an election in a long time.” Declared Walter Moore, a Cincinnati postal clerk: “I’m sure there are some blacks who won’t vote if Jesse doesn’t get the nomination. It’s going to be a hurting thing.”
In Steubenville, a depressed steel town in the Ohio River valley where blacks and whites are still sharply polarized, retired white Methodist minister Fred Gaston said that he was worried that the long-term result of such disillusion could be a wave of racial violence, as in the late 1960s. Said Gaston: “This whole problem of dreams deferred and hopes dashed concerns me. If people don’t see some changes, who can say what will happen? I don’t think it will come to, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ but we could run into real heavy weather ahead.”
Clearly sensing that possibility last week, Jackson campaigned through the industrial heartland of Ohio urging his supporters to “hold on and stand tall.” Evoking the historic struggles of the civil rights movement, he added: “We’ve come too far from where we’ve started to turn back. We must press forward. It’s a long and winding road, but it’s worth the struggle. Ain’t nothing and nobody gonna turn us around.” In rally after rally, he reverted to his campaign’s original themes, calling on economically disadvantaged Americans of every color to rise above the barriers of race and form “a quilt
of many patches, many pieces, many colors, but all bound by a common thread.” Said Jackson: “Hungry babies turned inside out are all the same color—the color of pain.”
That new burst of rhetorical energy seemed to represent his own triumph over disillusion. In an interview last week, one of his top advisers—who asked to remain anonymous —admitted that Jackson had plunged into a very real depression after the ugly ra-
cial undertones of the New York primary. Said the aide: “Here we’d gone through the whole country, even the South, without racial catcalls. And New York turns into this religious, racial horror with the party leadership doing nothing to stop it. There was a sense of just how alone Jackson was in trying to build a progressive party.” Jackson’s dejection still seemed to have a grip on him when he first arrived in Cincinnati last week for a late-night news conference after the additional disappointment of the Pennsylvania results. He offered only perfunctory answers and uncharacteristically refused a local television reporter’s request for an interview. But the next morning, as he addressed black high-school students in an inspirational exhortation to moral courage, their tumultuous response seemed to re-energize him. Said the aide: “Jesse inspires people but he
also gets reinspired by them.” Indeed, as Bush and Dukakis attacked each other last week on television talk shows, Jackson’s revitalized rhetoric was a reminder that he alone had contributed passion and ideological principle to the campaign. And as Democrats pondered Dukakis’s aloof technocratic image, many party leaders were reminded just how much they would need Jackson’s fire to help the governor in a six-month contest that many predicted would be close. Said Robert Squier, an independent communications consultant: “Jackson is the energy in this party right now. And the party’s got to harness it.”
But as Jackson returned to his initial message last week, he himself seemed partly to blame for the obituaries being written for his campaign. Raising the question that is constantly asked by editorial writers—what he would want in return for throwing his support behind Dukakis—he answered with the litany of costly social and economic programs he has traditionally advocated. And it is exactly those preconditions that Dukakis and many party officials clearly fear. Said William Schneider of Washington’s conservative American Enterprise Institute: “The Democrats are worried that whatever he wants is going to poison the ticket. If he demands some huge public works project, George Bush could have a field day.”
Still, although Jackson advisers predict that the candidate will have the most influence on the party’s platform, they claim that would not represent a real victory. Added one aide: “We’ll write the platform, but platforms don’t mean anything. The question is the soul of the Democratic party—who does it represent and what does it stand for?”
The public response to Jackson’s call for economic justice has already jeopardized the party leadership’s attempts to adopt more conservative policies. In shifting the ideological debate back to the timeworn principles of liberalism, many Democrats say that Jackson has given Bush ammunition to depict the party as one of outdated ideas. But other analysts speculate that those fears may themselves represent a political viewpoint that is out of date: a reluctance to recognize that the conservative era of Ronald Reagan is all but over.
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