The tragedy of Jesse Jackson

One constantly overlooked fact about Jesse is that he--quite literally--made Barack Obama possible. People often say this in a really hazy, metaphorical way, pointing out that Jesse "paved the way" or "knocked down doors" for Barack. But those sort of weak homilies actually understate how much Jesse did for Barack. After losing in 84 and 88, Jackson's people, Harold Ickes being principle, fought for proportional representation in all states:

Jackson, who made his first run for president in 1984, complained at the time that the rules had been "stacked" against him by organized labor and Democrats aligned with Kennedy and former vice president Walter Mondale. In the 1988 election, Jackson complained that in Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Jersey, and other states that awarded delegates on a winner-take-all basis within each congressional district, he had been deprived of his due share of delegates.

"We raised hell about the unfairness of the system that was in play," said Steve Cobble, Jackson's delegate director.

Dukakis eventually agreed to many of the changes Jackson wanted. Jackson's negotiators, Ron Brown and Harold Ickes, won an agreement to remove DNC members as superdelegates and mandated proportional representation as the only permissible method for states to apportion their delegates.

If you recall in the primaries, half of Barack's strategy was to keep it close in states like New Jersey and Pennsylvania, thus keeping Clinton from rolling up tons of delegates. It helped, of course, that Clinton's people basically ceded the caucuses allowing Barack to roll up huge leads in those states. Still, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that had Jesse Jackson not fought for those rule changes, Barack wouldn't be the Democratic nominee. Young cats--myself included--need to remember that when we tee-off on the guy.

Of course that only makes Jesse's current predicament that much more tragic.Kevin Merida, one of my favorite journalists, has a pretty great piece on Jackson in the Post today. This is sort of Kevin's specialty--putting black political figures (Bill Cosby, Clarence Thomas etc.) into perspective for us mortals. The piece shows just how much distance Barack has put between him and Jesse:

While calling his relationship with Obama "quite close and very respectful," Jackson says in an interview that he has not been asked to campaign for Obama as a surrogate and has not been asked to campaign jointly with him. Asked if he would have a speaking part or any other formal role at the Democratic National Convention in August, as has been customary since the 1980s, Jackson says he does not know. He also says he does not know if he will play any formal role in the fall campaign, as he has in the past, traveling the country on behalf of the party and the ticket, registering voters and building turnout.

"I'm available to serve in any capacity that he defines that will help him," Jackson says.

The problem is that I don't even know what capacity that would be. It's tempting to go after Barack as an ingrate and say he's ducking Jesse out of fear of what white voters might think.I'm sure there's some truth to that--but that critique doesn't get to the core of things. The adjective "polarizing" is too often used for people like Hillary Clinton, and Jesse Jackson and overstates their power. George Bush was polarizing in 2004--he drew out Dems in high numbers to toss him, and he drew out Republicans in even higher numbers to keep him in. But Hillary Clinton, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson manage to rile the other side, while still remaining divisive figures among the very people they claim to represent. It's a media myth that women were Hillary Clinton's "base"--she won them, on average, by a measly six points. Sharpton, as I've said many times, lost the black vote to John Kerry and John Edwards in South Carolina. You can't be polarizing if you simply repel your enemies.

Ditto for Jesse. A lot of white people, evidently, hate him, while black people are generally split on him. That's not something that happened out of thin air. When you offer to pay for the education of the alleged Duke rape victim--whether she's guilty or innocent--one moment, and then support the Schiavo family the next, expect a lot of white people to hate you, and a lot of black people to be embarrassed by you. When you pick fights with Cedric the Entertainer, and Ice Cube because they made a joke about you, expect a lot of young black people to not take to kindly to you. So for Barack the question is this: If white voters hate Jesse and black voters are mixed about him, and I've already got black voters locked down, what's to be gained by having him campaign for me? Tough. But not wrong.