Chicago. -- So far in this presidential year, the Democrats' TV debates have lacked some of the sparkle and drama of four years ago. In fact, Paul Tsongas -- playing Sen. Paul Simon's role as nerdy man of principle -- has stolen the show, so little contrast has been offered to his lack of glitter.
Last time, the glitter factor belonged to Jesse Jackson, who was almost the moderator of some of the debates as well as their most dramatic participant. But his appeal was not just a matter of style. In fact, on matters of substance he was ahead of his rivals in 1988, and is still ahead of the Democrats in 1992.
The big issue this year is health insurance. The Pennsylvania Senate race of Harris Wofford is given credit for its salience. But Mr. Jackson was pushing that issue four years ago. In fact, one of Paul Tsongas' ads this year uses a line Mr. Jackson made familiar then -- that the first question asked about a sick person should be where does it hurt, not how will you pay.
This year Sen. Tom Harkin is saying that we must rebuild our infrastructure through a program of public works. Mr. Jackson said that back then. But Senator Harkin is not saying how to fund his plan, and Mr. Jackson did -- through the investment of pension funds. That was an idea he had picked up from his economic advisers. Now Felix Rohatyn, the famous rescuer of New York in its bankrupt years, is recommending the same thing. As has often been the case, Mr. Jackson was ahead of the curve on matters of substance, not merely of style.
A year or so ago, people were saying that Jesse Jackson's day was over, that Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia signaled a new era of more responsible African American leaders with electoral experience. Well, Governor Wilder folded rapidly, and many think he was not willing to test the electorate's response, since it would be far lower than the returns Mr. Jackson ran up in 1988.
A speech given early in 1991 by one of Mr. Jackson's 1988 advisers, Steve Cobble, has just crossed my desk. Mr. Cobble predicted the collapse of Governor Wilder's bid, and pointed out that Mr. Jackson's popularity in the polls is stronger among young people, black and white, than among their elders. The ''new day'' of black leadership is more a sign of Mr. Jackson's strength than of his demise.
I had these developments in mind as I read the first two installments of Marshall Frady's three-article series on Mr. Jackson in The New Yorker. Mr. Frady, the son of a preacher who grew up not far from Mr. Jackson's birthplace, has a Southerner's insight into what makes Jesse run. In fact, Mr. Frady has specialized in Southern Gothic biographies -- first of George Wallace, then of Billy Graham.
What emerges so far from Mr. Frady's portrait is a man driven to redeem himself by redeeming his nation -- a man trying to find his place by redefining his surroundings; a man not very reflective, but with a voracious intake of other people's experience, high and low; a person changing as he brings about change.
This year, the Democratic candidates took Mr. Jackson seriously enough to respond to his call that they come and explain to his Rainbow Coalition what they are up to. The Democrats are now listening to him. The nation at large would do well to imitate them.
1'Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.