The Rev. Jesse Jackson: Politician as TV personality


December 10, 1990|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Washington He's walking onto the set of his TV talk show, as straight, proud and confident as a savvy politician. His arms are high above his head, thumbs-up victory signs jabbing the air. Now he's shaking hands with strangers in his audience, giving a high-five here, a slap-me-five there, a wink and point to a face in the back. He's even picking up a 3-year-old and, in true pol form, giving the toddler a kiss.

This is no talk show host. This is Jesse Jackson.

The clergyman-turned-politician-turned-TV personality will tell you himself that he's no Oprah or Phil or Sally Jessy:

"My experience in traveling across this country and this world is substantial," he says in an interview at WRC-TV, where his new weekly show is taped, launching into what sounds just like a campaign speech.

"I've helped to change laws in our country.

"I've led drives for social justice.

"I've motivated our youth.

"I've run for the presidency.

"I've brought hostages home from foreign countries . . .

"The other TV show hosts have not done that."

Nor do the others split their days between politics and show biz, between lobbying efforts and mike checks, between "Jesse Jackson," the new nationally syndicated chat show, and Jesse Jackson, the newly elected shadow senator for Washington.

Mr. Jackson, whose show airs in Baltimore on WMAR-TV (Channel 2) at midnight Sundays, sees no conflict between the roles of impartial journalist and strident politician -- even though that very conflict caused the program to be blacked out in Baltimore and Washington until after the Nov. 6 election because of his candidacy.

"It's just an extension of my service in the public domain," Mr. Jackson says of his new TV role. "If I'm fighting for D.C. statehood or motivating youth in our schools to avoid drugs and vote, that's public service. Discussing these issues of substance, trying to reorient minds away from violence and decadence, that's public service.

"The fact that I have access to 138 markets means we can communicate more clearly a set of subjects and a point of view than we could depending upon the regular media to screen our work."

It was that very access that appealed to Mr. Jackson when his friend Quincy Jones, who produces the show, approached him with the idea. "Quincy said, 'Look how much plane travel you do,' " said Adam Clayton Powell III, executive producer of the show. " 'Wouldn't it be easier to do a television show to bring your ideas to all these cities instead of getting on a plane all the time?' "

Mr. Powell sees the show, which debuted in most cities Sept. 29 or 30, as falling "somewhere between the Sunday talk shows and Oprah and Phil." With, of course, a decided Jesse Jackson spin, including his familiar "Down with dope, up with hope" refrain and, often, his own political musings at the close of each show.

Some believe the program will prove an asset to Mr. Jackson's political life. "He has something other members of Congress don't have," says Ronald Walters, chairman of Howard University's political science department. "Constant visibility. I would think this would enhance his political viability."

For each segment of the show, Mr. Jackson orchestrates conversation among three or four high-profile guests -- everyone from Louisiana state representative David Duke to boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard, from actress Colleen Dewhurst to Maryland Representative Kweisi Mfume -- with questions and comments from the studio audience. The topics are generally of national or international scope: the Persian Gulf crisis, evangelism in the United States, racist images in Hollywood, free speech.

"Our subject matter tends to have a slant toward our social order, whether it's the farmers in Virginia fighting for job security or the civil rights deal or the impact of racism and sexism or war and peace options," says Mr. Jackson.

The show's early ratings were poor -- partially because of its obscure time slots (8 a.m. Sunday in Washington), but producers say the numbers have been progressing steadily and markedly. According to Mr. Powell, ratings among black viewers are about four times higher than for non-black audiences, "but I want to see this as a town meeting for everyone."

Since the show began, the producers have tinkered with just how much Jesse Jackson they want to come through.

"The idea is to frame a subject, taking advantage of the fact that he has a point of view," says Mr. Powell. "We certainly want to be fair, but I don't think it would be a good idea to deny that Jesse Jackson has a point of view."

But early on, producers urged him to hold back that ready point of view, fearful "The Jesse Jackson Show" would become nothing more than an hour-long Jesse Jackson rally. And he did hold back, even when David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, appeared as a guest and talked about "the massive racial discrimination going on in America . . . against whites."

But now, says Mr. Powell, "We're shifting back a little bit. We're trying to fine tune it so Jesse Jackson becomes a little more of a participant."

For his part, Mr. Jackson says he tries to inject his own opinions "in a way that stimulates a response but does not overwhelm."

His stronger voice is saved for his day job as Washington's unpaid shadow senator, lobbying Congress to turn the District of Columbia into the state of New Columbia -- with the expectation that he will become the new state's senator. "That is really what I want to do," he says.

Or is it?

Just what, in fact, does the former presidential hopeful, newly elected public official and newly anointed talk show personality really want?

Could it be another shot at the U.S. presidency, he is asked?

"I will always keep my options for public service open."

Spoken with all the vagueness of a true politician.

But then, this is no talk show host. This is Jesse Jackson.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.