Clinton, Jackson trying to forge a relationship ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 24, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The latest act in the delicate drama of Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson was a classic case of political symbiosis.

Jackson clearly needs to become seen as a voice in the deliberations of the new administration. For his part, Clinton has a stake in ending the suspicion that there are serious divisions among black leaders about his commitment to an urban agenda. The meeting of the two men in Little Rock, Ark., allowed each of them to achieve at least part of his goal.

The relationship between the two Democrats has been testy, at best, ever since Clinton became head of the moderately conservative Democratic Leadership Council and acquiesced in Jackson's being denied a chance to speak at a DLC meeting. It became worse late last spring when Clinton deliberately chose an opportunity -- the appearance of controversial rap singer Sister Souljah at a Rainbow Coalition function -- to affront Jackson directly.

Jackson complained bitterly about the then presumptive Democratic nominee's "distancing himself," but Clinton refused to yield to calls for an attention-getting "summit" between the two at the Democratic National Convention. Instead, he kept Jackson at arm's length and insisted that the civil rights leader endorse the ticket if he were even to be allowed to speak at the convention.

Jackson countered with a tepid endorsement, a speech that largely ignored the ticket and a role in the campaign in registering new voters in which he frequently displayed the most limited enthusiasm for the party nominees.

But it was Clinton who reaped the political rewards. His willingness to confront Jackson resonated through the white electorate, in the South and elsewhere, all year. Among voters who had suspected that Walter F. Mondale in 1984 and Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 had been too eager to please Jackson, Clinton's "distancing" was political magic.

In Little Rock, however, Jackson apparently was less concerned with the slights of the past than with the new reality as he shared a breakfast and attendance at a Roman Catholic Church with the president-elect. The key phrase delivered by Jackson, in his sermon at the church, was that Clinton's success was a triumph of "inclusion over exclusion" -- words that would be interpreted in the black community as meaning black Americans are included.

Jackson put some pressure on Clinton by suggesting that the new president's program for the first 100 days would be closely watched for what it offered his constituency. And he hinted that he would like to be included in the conference on economic policy to be convened here next month. "I hope that those of us who represent different dimensions of interests will be part of such a summit meeting," he said.

Any Democratic president obviously would prefer to have a Jesse Jackson "inside the tent spitting out rather than outside spitting in" -- a laundered version of an axiom Lyndon B. Johnson once applied to J. Edgar Hoover, the difficult FBI director. But Clinton is not in a position in which he has to go out of his way to placate Jackson.

One reason is that he has other important black leaders in high places in his inner circle -- including most notably Vernon Jordan as chairman of his transition board and Ronald H. Brown as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. During the campaign, moreover, Clinton was given active help by a long list of black leaders -- Mayor Maynard Jackson and Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, for example -- who did not share Jesse Jackson's reservations.

The most important element in Clinton's thinking, however, has to be the fact that he won the election after stiffing Jesse Jackson -- and, in the estimates of some Democratic professionals, BECAUSE he stiffed Jesse Jackson.

The threat that had been hanging over Democratic candidates had always been that if Jackson took a walk, they would pay so heavily with their most loyal constituency they could not win. As it turned out, Clinton got the usual Democratic share of the black vote -- 8 out of 9 -- and increased shares of the votes of white Southerners and other Reagan Democrats who had always been the most hostile to Jackson. And, as Jackson now must accept, that was the winning formula.

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