WASHINGTON -- With all his other troubles, the last thing Gov. Bill Clinton needs right now is a hassle with Jesse Jackson. But that's what he may be heading toward in Jackson's latest expressed desire to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
After having been quoted in the New York Daily News that "if I bTC am rejected this time, I am prepared to react," Jackson backed off, phoning Clinton and saying afterward that "at no time did I threaten the candidate or the party over the vice presidency or anything else."
But the very fact that Jackson has so publicly advanced his availability puts pressure on Clinton, caught as previous Democratic nominees have been between the desire to win Jackson's support and fear that too close identification with him can cost the backing of many whites.
When Jackson decided not to seek the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, many party regulars breathed a sigh of relief. Convinced that he could be neither nominated nor elected, they felt a major source of conflict had been removed from the year's political equation.
It was not just a Jackson candidacy itself that concerned them. It was the prospect that the most influential leader in black America, once defeated in the primaries as he was in 1984 and 1988 while winning a substantial vote, would plague the nominee with debilitating demands.
In 1984, Jackson held his support over the head of Walter Mondale for an inordinate period, making Mondale look weak in the process. And in 1988, he did the same to Michael Dukakis, putting him through a highly visible convention-eve summit and extracting concessions on party rules before giving support.
He made life particularly difficult for Dukakis by suggesting that he had earned the vice-presidential nomination by finishing as runner-up in delegates won -- a contention with little historical or practical basis behind it. And when a Dukakis staff mix-up resulted in Jackson's learning from a reporter, not from Dukakis, that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was his choice, Jackson made Dukakis squirm all the more.
Jackson's decision to stay out of the 1992 race was a major break for Clinton. It opened the way for him to court and win the black vote in the South and in Northern states with large black populations such as Illinois, Michigan and New York.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown's transparent effort to cut into Clinton's black vote in New York, by saying if nominated he would ask Jackson to be his running mate, failed.
But Jackson is not one to forget slights, such as the decision of the Democratic Leadership Council, then chaired by Clinton, not to invite him to speak at its annual meeting last year. Or Clinton's impolitic remark over an open microphone earlier this year, when erroneously advised that Jackson had endorsed Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, that it was "a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do."
Aside from this history, it takes a great stretch of the imagination to see Clinton selecting Jackson as his running mate, considering the high negatives Jackson carries in most polls. Still, Jackson's stated interest in the position poses a diplomatic problem for Clinton.
The Arkansas governor has already said that he intends to select an individual who, when disclosed as his choice, will immediately be recognized as a person well qualified to succeed to the presidency if fate should dictate. If he starts commenting on prospective choices, he can hardly not mention Jackson in that context, at least for the sake of political window dressing.
So the advisable course for Clinton is not to get himself into that trap by mentioning anyone by name. And having the nomination near his grasp, the need to shop the vice-presidential nomination around, as other front-runners have done in the past, is not pressing.
Selecting a vice-presidential nominee may be the single best opportunity for Clinton to demonstrate the quality of his decision-making, although George Bush's choice of Dan Quayle, widely criticized at the time and since, has not seemed to hurt him politically.
Jackson's apparent determination to submit his bid, however, complicates that opportunity. How Clinton deals with this complication may itself indicate much about his skill or lack of it in facing other difficult political decisions he would confront in the Oval Office.