Jackson's silence sends a message

Dan Rodricks

March 02, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

What is Jesse Jackson thinking? He had an opportunity yesterday to influence the outcome of tomorrow's Democratic presidential primary, but refrained from doing so. Preaching to two large Baptist congregations in the heart of Baltimore -- Sharon and New Shiloh -- on the Sunday before the election, Jackson didn't even drop a name, and the most obvious name we didn't hear from the pulpit was that of Bill Clinton. Why the restraint?

Was this Jackson's way of making Clinton squirm a bit longer for his angry and foolish outburst against the reverend last week? Jackson downplayed Clinton's remarks -- the Arkansas governor was reacting to an erroneous report that Jackson was about to endorse Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin -- as an "attack without verification," and an "error in judgment."

Could Jackson, who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, be leaving the door open for a revival of his own candidacy? "We have been receiving a lot of pressure to re-enter the race," he said in passing. Could he be holding back, waiting for a point of grander influence? It's hard to tell exactly what accounts for Jackson's decision not to make an endorsement at a decidedly critical time at a decidedly critical place.

If Bill Clinton is counting on heavy black support from the city to pull off a win in Maryland, he needed Jackson to drop his name on the Lord's day. That it didn't happen adds an intriguing dynamic to Tuesday's drama. Mayor Kurt Schmoke's endorsement is important for Clinton but it does not pack a punch or reverberate the way Jackson's does. (It doesn't match the punch of an endorsement from Rep. Kweisi Mfume, either.) The lack of a plug from either Jackson or Mfume could deprive Clinton of the edge he needs to beat Paul Tsongas.

"People are not responding, they're uncommitted," Jackson said after a long, eloquent and classically passionate sermon at Sharon Baptist. "There's a vacuum, and the candidates have to broaden their message to address that vacuum. There has been a repetitive focus on the middle class. . . . There's a vast body of people who feel their needs are not being addressed."

For Jackson, that means none of the five leading Democrats, with the possible exception of Harkin, has forcefully addressed the urban problems that have been allowed to fester during the Reagan-Bush years -- poverty, homelessness, underfunded public schools. "If people see no hope, they won't vote," Jackson said.

In his sermons in Baltimore yesterday, Jackson presented a history of sins, past and present, against minorities by a Washington establishment he portrayed as a preservation society for the status quo. The Reagan-Bush administrations, he said repeatedly, neglected American cities, rural families and the working poor. We haven't invested in human capital; we have wasted human potential.

"Why," he asked in a voice that cracked through a microphone, "do so many young men consider jail a step up? Once in jail, they are no longer homeless. They have doctors in jail. They have libraries in jail. They have organized recreation in jail. They have everything in jail they should have had out here!!"

Wealthy communities can afford to effectively educate children, while children in poor communities have to get by with less.

"Last year, not one child from New Haven went to Yale," Jackson said. He mentioned a prison where the annual per-inmate cost is $36,000. "We spend twice more a year to go to jail than to go to Yale. We got to change our course!"

As he has done for years, Jackson spoke of the working poor, the millions of Americans who keep full-time jobs but whose incomes still fall below the government-set poverty line. "They raise other people's children, they cook our food, they work every day. They change hospital beds every day, yet when they get sick they cannot afford to lie in the bed they made every day. We got to change our course!"

There's no argument there. None of the Democrats running for president would disagree with Jackson. The four we saw in a televised debate last night -- Clinton, Harkin, Tsongas and Jerry Brown -- share a political heritage that is more akin to Jesse Jackson's than the reverend thinks. They share fundamental beliefs in social justice and progressive government. Each, but especially Harkin and Brown, offers to rattle the Republican status quo.

If in their campaigns they speak frequently to the middle class -- even pander to it -- there's a good reason. For more than a decade, they have been advised to address the concerns of the working people who pay the big bills of government. The Democrat who wins this time will be the one who can keep faith with and revive the high principles of the party while offering a long view on economic recovery. And all the candidates seem to be offering that, which is why the choice is so difficult, which makes tomorrow a beautiful day for an election.

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