WASHINGTON -- In 1984, Walter Mondale clinched the Democratic presidential nomination in early June. But it was not until Labor Day weekend, three months later, that Jesse Jackson, who had finished third behind Gary Hart, agreed to endorse Mondale. And he did so only after a public show of recalcitrance in St. Paul that embarrassed and infuriated Mondale.
Four years ago, Michael Dukakis also clinched the nomination long before the national convention only to be jerked around by Jackson. The civil rights leader made a show of indignation when, because of a mechanical blunder, Dukakis did not notify him in advance of the choice of Lloyd Bentsen for the vice presidential nomination. Then Jackson chose to ride a bus caravan from Chicago to the Atlanta convention and to insist on a summit meeting with the nominee before delivering his endorsement.
In both cases, opinion polls found that many white voters believed the candidates had caved in to Jackson, although in fact there were never any significant concessions granted by either Mondale or Dukakis. The result was that both found it even more difficult than it might otherwise have been to appeal to relatively conservative Democrats, particularly but not exclusively in the South, who react angrily at what they see as special treatment for Jesse Jackson.
These bits of history are important to understanding why another presumptive nominee, Gov. Bill Clinton, chose deliberately to affront Jackson by using the Rainbow Coalition meeting here as the forum for criticizing Sister Souljah, the rap singer who had responded to the Los Angeles riots by telling the Washington Post: "If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" That comment, Clinton said with Jackson seated at his side, was "filled with hatred."
Behind Clinton's thrust lie two calculations by his campaign. The first obviously is that Clinton cannot make the mistake of Mondale and Dukakis and allow himself to be portrayed to white voters as a tool of Democratic constituency groups in general and Jackson in particular. Most political professionals would agree with that.
The second, more subject to challenge, is that Clinton already has enough support from black leaders across the country so that he doesn't need to curry favor with Jackson. No one would dispute the proposition that Clinton can expect 90 percent of the black vote in November; polls show little support in that community for either President Bush or Ross Perot.
But the question is whether blacks will turn out in the kind of numbers Clinton needs if he is engaged in a public feud with Jackson. Dukakis suffered serious losses -- the electoral votes of both Pennsylvania and Illinois, at least -- because of the low black turnout in 1988.
Jackson has responded to Clinton's brashness with predictable huffiness and implied threats. Clinton's remarks were "very bad judgment" and might "backfire," he allowed. They were a "diversion" from dealing with the real issues in the campaign.
But the Sister Souljah opening was ideal for Clinton's purposes. Despite her talk of killing whites, Jackson had put her on the program at the same Rainbow Coalition meeting. Jackson may try to paper over the rap singer's post-Los Angeles extremism, but many blacks as well as whites are not going to buy it.
There remains, nonetheless, the potential for serious political mischief on Jackson's part. He already has been encouraging speculation that he is serious about wanting to be the vice presidential nominee. He has pointedly withheld his endorsement of the Arkansas governor while most other Democratic leaders have been getting on board.
The relationship between the two men has never been cordial, even before this campaign. As chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton agreed to exclude Jackson from the program for one of its meetings, which did not sit well with Jackson despite his ostensible disdain for the DLC.
But now Clinton has done something none of his predecessors has dared by defying Jackson directly and publicly. The political profit and loss statement will come later.