Not long ago, Douglas Wilder, the governor of Virginia, had three things going for him that really pleased the Democratic Party:
* He was bright.
* He was a good campaigner.
* He was not Jesse Jackson.
Today, all that can be said of Wilder is that he is not Jesse Jackson.
Since the 1988 election, the Democrats have been looking for an elected black official to supplant Jesse Jackson in the hearts and minds of black voters.
In a speech listing the reasons Michael Dukakis lost (it was a long speech), Dukakis' former campaign manager, John Sasso said: "In some ways, voters seem to judge the strength and skill and character of the Democratic candidate on how effectively he gets along with or copes with Jackson. It becomes an unending litmus test."
And the Democratic leaders wanted the litmus test to end. Jackson had finished an incredible second to Dukakis in 1988. He was denied the vice presidential nomination then, but could he be denied it forever?
And what if Jackson should actually get to the convention some year having won more delegates than any other candidate? Could the Democratic Party really refuse to make him the nominee?
The Democrats need black voters, one of the few voting blocs in America still unashamed to admit they are Democrats. But some leaders, including black leaders, feel they don't need Jackson.
They believe him to be unelectable either as president or vice president, that he carries too much baggage with him and that nobody is going to elect a man who has never previously held public office. (Few, besides Jackson, take his election as "shadow" senator from Washington very seriously.)
And logical replacements for Jackson were at hand. There were attractive black leaders who actually have stood before the public, black and white, and have been elected to office.
Bill Gray, a congressman from Philadelphia, had become chairman of the Budget Committee and was second in line to become speaker of the House.
Doug Wilder had been elected governor of Virginia and incredibly was now serving in the capital of the old Confederacy. And he wasted no time in forming an exploratory committee for the presidency in 1992.
There were others some talked about: David Dinkins, mayor of New York, and even Kurt Schmoke, mayor of Baltimore.
Aside from being black and holding public office, one other thing marked all these men: None had an overly high regard for Jesse Jackson.
They were all civil to him (Gray, just barely) and would on occasion even be seen with him. But they did not consider Jackson one of them. They did not consider him a man who had actually done much as opposed to talking about doing much.
And Jackson knew who his rivals were. In an interview a few months ago, Jackson told me:
"I created the possibilities for the others. If Jackson can run for president, they said, then I can do this. If a black can run for president, then why not Bill Gray? Why not Doug Wilder?
"It all grew out of what I did in 1984. Now, they speak as if it just came about. But we [i.e., Jackson] created that.
"We have lived through too much to let the media pick our leaders. White America has to make room for our leadership. It can't choose it."
In other words, Jackson was saying he could not be counted out, no matter how many stories ran in the papers and on TV saying he was out.
But things didn't look that good for Jackson in 1992. If he ran a third time and lost, wouldn't he become the Harold Stassen of the Democratic Party? And what was he doing? Writing a newspaper column? Hosting a TV show? Trying to persuade people to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state?
How did any of that compare with what Gray or Wilder was doing?
But Jackson did what he does very well: He bided his time.
And now he has been rewarded.
Last week, Douglas Wilder decided to kick off his campaign for the presidency by insulting every Catholic in America.
Though there were many good reasons for Wilder to oppose the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Wilder chose the one reason that wasn't good: Thomas' religion.
Wilder said that since Thomas was a Catholic and the pope was against abortion, "The question is, 'How much allegiance is there to the pope?' "
The next day, with Catholics across the country howling, Wilder issued a non-apologetic apology, saying he was sorry "if anyone was offended."
This, coupled with Wilder's ugly public feud with Charles Robb, the Democratic senator from Virginia, has helped throw a tidal wave of cold water on his presidential hopes.
Not long before, Bill Gray decided he had enough of public life and announced he was leaving the House of Representatives to head up the United Negro College Fund.
Dinkins is busy trying to keep his own head above water in a city that is sinking and Schmoke, running for re-election, assures me with apparent sincerity that he has no interest whatsoever in holding elective office other than that of mayor.
So where are the Democrats left?
They are left where they started.
He has not yet formally announced his intentions, but by the end of this year, the 1992 campaign must begin. And don't be surprised if from the wings you hear the familiar cry: