Imagine a Shadow Showboat

September 12, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

Washington THIS IS NOT an official endorsement of Jesse Jackson's shadow candidacy for the U.S. Senate, any more than similar sentiments a political eon ago were an endorsement of Spiro T. Agnew's re-election as vice president.

Either of these sensitive gentlemen might sue at being %o compared to the other, but for a moment one thing they have in common is more fascinating than their obvious differences. I speak of the current Jackson and the pre-1973, pre-nolo contendere Agnew -- of their talents as demagogues, with no reference to the plea-bargain in which Vice President Agnew quit to stay out of jail.

As governor of Maryland, he had caught Richard Nixon's attention with his fulminations against the Baltimore rioters of April 1968. After Mr. Nixon surprised the party by picking him to become vice president, Mr. Agnew became the darling of the GOP right by smiting the opposition and the media that for some reason seemed skeptical of their president.

''A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,'' Mr. Agnew declared. The more he pounded the press, the more publicity he got in the press. Yet when 1972 approached, there were questions about whether Mr. Nixon would take him along for a second term.

Mr. Agnew pretended to be indifferent. Looking ahead, he said, ''I can't say I'm enraptured with the idea [of being president]. The thing that's become increasingly attractive to me is a syndicated column.''

Yesterday, Jesse Jackson expected to be nominated as a ''shadow senator'' from the District of Columbia -- a job that offers a title and a platform, but no responsibility and no vote in Congress. Instead of ending, this boosts his ambitions as a presidential contender.

Mr. Jackson already speaks out on any subject, anywhere. He has been a preacher. He has been head of PUSH, the Chicago-based outfit that helps boost minority interests. He has been a presidential candidate. On the stump and on television, he has been a master of rhyme and alliteration -- the Agnew of the Eighties, though with a message 180 degrees opposite.

But perhaps that didn't pay enough. Perhaps it didn't give him enough uninterrupted air time. Perhaps he didn't like to depend on other people's camera crews, and wanted one of his own. Perhaps he was feeling down after calling a press conference to which only one reporter came. Perhaps -- this one least likely -- he wasn't sure he would win whichever D.C. office he decided to run for.

And so, doing what Mr. Agnew merely threatened, he proclaimed himself a journalist.

In our country, anybody can. No license or degree is necessary. Various opinionated people have won celebrity in politics or government and cashed in on it as commentators, in print or on the air. So, in the popular mind, Jesse Jackson may be just as legitimate a journalist as, say, Helen Thomas.

When he went to Iraq to interview Saddam Hussein, he explained that he got access where many others didn't because he went as ''a reputable journalist.'' Again, that's legitimate: just as anybody can declare himself a journalist, anybody can call himself reputable.

But Mr. Jackson's doing so does create more confusion than usual. The week before he went to Iraq, he was campaigning to boycott Nike shoes because the company had no blacks on its board. The week before that, he was sitting across the breakfast table not interviewing, but being interviewed by Washington reporters as a political activist. This week, he is accepting congratulations on his nomination as shadow senator.

When Mr. Agnew threatened to become a journalist, I dared the wrath of my colleagues by approving, because that would take him out of the line of succession to the White House. In Mr. Jackson's case, I urge him to get elected shadow senator or anything else if that will keep him out of journalism.

It's a vain hope.

The trade of journalism has absorbed a certain number of side-door commentators, crossovers from politics who usually cross only once, in one direction. But Mr. Jackson is a traveling showboat, guaranteed to zig-zag, crossing first this way and then the other. If his TV sponsors buy into journalism as show business, the only protest the rest of us can make is to treat him as a colleague by ignoring him, then watching the showboat explode.

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