Jackson's enemy is in the mirror

A. M. Rosenthal

June 25, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

ONCE AGAIN, and before the whole country, Jesse Jackson is exposing and pointing straight at the one man who damages him most -- Jesse Jackson.

And once again he is making many people happy. They are Americans who either despise him, fear him or think that all these years he has been passionate about and true to only one cause -- Jesse Jackson.

That's good news for them. The cry of "I told you so" is loud in Democratic politics. Republicans are laughing. Perot people are publicly putting out the word to Mr. Jackson to get lost.

But it is sad news for those Americans, black and white, who have vivid differences with Mr. Jackson, but still believe he is worth the country's careful attention and decent respect.

They feel that way for some things he has done. He helped bring millions of Americans to the voting booth. He speaks the truth about the new slavery of drug addiction. And by hard campaigning within the democratic system he became the first, and still only, African-American politician of national importance. That's a lot of somethings.

We were not entire fools. We did not forget his various nastinesses nor his embarrassing Third-World pieties. But, particularly after Los Angeles, we felt that the country had to put aside old hurts and angers, at least try.

We did not believe that the racists and haters would suddenly convert and be redeemed.

But we did feel that at last white and black leaders could now turn entirely away from those ugly people, defeating them by refusing them tolerance or respectability.

And to do that, few people seemed more important than Jesse Jackson, and still do.

But at his own Rainbow Coalition meeting in Washington he again raised the question: Can he really be counted on to help? Or will he respond to every test as he did to the Sister Souljah episode -- with wrath not against black racists but against those who bring them up at times he finds inconvenient?

Sister Souljah regularly soils herself with the racism that has become so common among rap singers -- the usual devil-whitey garbage. She is disgusting.

She was invited to a seminar at a meeting sponsored by Jackson. Later, Bill Clinton spoke at the conference, a long speech full of the kind of ideas and thoughts Mr. Jackson says he wants from candidates.

Toward the end of the 12-page speech Mr. Clinton dared include five paragraphs about Sister Souljah's rantings about killing whites, the dirty nature of whites, and how she had never met a good white. Mr. Clinton said that if you reversed the words white and black, you would get David Duke -- although I doubt even Mr. Duke has been that vile in public.

It was Mr. Clinton's plain duty to denounce the rap racist once he found himself appearing at the same conference she graced.

Mr. Jackson went into a rage -- stepped up for days -- not at the racist but the man who criticized her.

Why? Was it because Mr. Jackson was disappointed that a plan by Felix Rohatyn calling for massive public and private investment did not get the attention he hoped it would bring the Rainbow Coalition?

Mr. Jackson says Mr. Clinton should have informed him in advance that he would criticize Sister Souljah. Tut. Maybe, but it is startlingly vindictive of Mr. Jackson to say that it was a "character flaw" -- a phrase carefully crafted to stab deeply.

What? A character flaw for a presidential candidate to speak up about a racist without getting the advance permission of her protective host?

The flaw, I am afraid, was in the accuser. It is an old one. He loves to take the high road -- but not the one so strangely hard for him. He refuses to cut himself off from the racists -- or cut them off from whatever power they get from his company or silence.

Sister Souljah's presence was Mr. Jackson's own opportunity to tell rap racists off plain. He would have burnished his name. He blew it.

Mr. Clinton's own forthrightness must have seemed a rebuking contrast to Mr. Jackson. So then he listened to the one man who damages him most.

How long can he do that before it ceases to matter?

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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