Fly, Jesse, fly

May 09, 1999|By Paul Delaney

AS THE beat goes on, so does the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, to the consternation and befuddlement of President Clinton and his policy makers.

As the civil rights movement's elder statesman, Mr. Jackson again demonstrated a week ago that he retains the ability to be nimble of foot as he charts his own diplomatic missions.

What does Mr. Jackson want? The media, politicians and others wonder. Probably, they'll never know.

Most recently, he persuaded a wily old Eastern European hard-liner to join hands in prayer and release three U.S. soldiers held prisoner in the Balkans war.

Mr. Jackson has had more than five minutes of fame and, more than most nonelected, nongovernment U.S. citizens, living or dead. Yet his ultimate motives and aims are still mysterious, controversial and questioned.

TV moments

There he was greeting and shaking the hand of the U.S.' monster-of-the-moment, Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic. Next, he was embracing the three young soldiers. Good footage. Later, Mr. Jackson held a prayer meeting with the trio, delivered them to their generals, and found his way to every microphone and camera he could spy.

And, he took a beating for it.

His actions were met with hostility by a largely unappreciative president and press. They wanted to let his successful mission go as quickly and quietly as possible.

Mr. Jackson was treated almost with contempt. He was accused of meddling, which was true. One columnist made an allusion to Mr. Jackson being in the same category with Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally. Not true.

He called for a pause in the bombing to allow diplomacy to function, and as a good will response to release of the prisoners. But policy makers were not about to give him that satisfaction.

Mindful of the attacks on him, but typically undaunted, Mr. Jackson used every media appearance granted him to make his case. At a press conference he said, "Some would say that Milosevic let them go as a cynical gesture, but what would they have said if he had kept them?"

He found himself defending his right to make the trip to Belgrade. As for praying with Milosevic, Mr. Jackson noted that religion is his "business." As for consorting with demons: "You don't negotiate with demons, you exorcise them."

Who knows what Mr. Jackson really wants? His biographers, principally, journalists Barbara Reynolds and Marshall Frady, ascribed his drive to an incredible ego fueled by a need to prove himself worthy as a result of scars from being the son of an unwed mother, residing next door to his father's family.

Mike Royko, the late Chicago newspaper columnist, tagged Mr. Jackson "Jesse Jetstream" for his penchant for flying from one crisis to another, anything and anywhere that generates publicity.

Mr. Jackson has never lived down the label, but his appeals on behalf of the people he rescues and to the advocates of the causes he promotes, seem to sustain him despite the critics, some of whom are friends and supporters who have suggested that he change his ways. But, alas, he cannot do that.

His exploits are small when framed within the bigger picture -- in this case, war and peace.

In 1984, he convinced Syria to release Navy pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman Jr., who was shot down over Lebanon. A few months later, he persuaded Fidel Castro to release 22 Americans and 26 Cubans from his country's prisons.

In 1990, he helped win the release from Iraq of more than 700 foreign women and children who had been detained as human shields against a U.S. military attack after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Everyone is happy for those released to Mr. Jackson's custody and their families. But these are just isolated incidents, not key turning points in international affairs.

Mr. Jackson expects to be iced out of any future negotiations concerning the Balkan conflict. He does not care, he'll move on to the next crisis, his next five minutes of fame.

We'll still not know what he wants, or, really, who he is. Rest assured, though, he will be back. Fly, Jesse, fly.

Paul Delaney is co-director of the Center for the Study of Race and Media at Howard University in Washington.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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