Giving Jesse the cold shoulder

May 13, 1999|By MAUREEN DOWD

WASHINGTON -- Jesse Jackson detected slights.

When he got the three prisoners of war out of Slobodan Milosevic's grasp and back to the safety of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, he and his contingent of religious leaders expected a hot meal. Not just cold cuts.

Gentle reader, this will not surprise you, but Jacksonians have been keeping a dis list. They feel the insults have been orchestrated by Clinton hawks livid that Mr. Jackson got out "our boys," as he calls them, and added to the pressure on the administration to rethink its wobbly war.

The Jackson crowd felt it had not been met at the air base by a U.S. official of sufficient stature.

And, most egregiously for the camera-loving preacher, when Mr. Jackson made his triumphal return and met with the president, the White House allowed only a few still photographers into the room. There were no TV cameras rolling.

Getting upstaged

And it wasn't even the Oval Office where Mr. Jackson wasn't getting on TV. This came after the White House kept the reverend cooling his heels for about an hour in the Roosevelt Room while Viktor Chernomyrdin was shuttled between the vice president and president. And that shifty Russian did get into the Oval Office!

When the president met at the White House Tuesday with business leaders, and flew them to Atlanta to talk about enhancing private investment in inner cities and poor rural areas, he did not invite his spiritual adviser, the man who prayed with the president, Hillary and Chelsea to help them heal after you-know-what. This even though Mr. Jackson was the one who started the effort to get chief executive officers to invest in poor communities.

Policy trouble

The administration stewed about Mr. Jackson's Belgrade free-lancing endangering U.S. policy. But a policy as addled as this one doesn't need Mr. Jackson to mess it up. The CIA, or "Can't Identify Anything," as Jay Leno calls it, doesn't even know where the Chinese embassy in Belgrade is. You can probably get that information on the Web.

Madeleine Albright must have been steamed at all the jokes about Mr. Jackson being the de facto secretary of state. After all, there had already been so much talk about Sandy Berger being the de facto secretary of state. At the White House correspondents dinner, Brian Williams, the MSNBC anchor who was acting as masters of ceremonies, teased Ms. Albright, "How about that Jesse Jackson?"

The notoriously thin-skinned Madame Secretary sought to turn things around by giving Time magazine unusual access to her Balkan negotiations. She is on this week's cover with a cell phone and a flygirl bomber jacket. The 10-page rhapsody to "Madeleine's War" includes etudes in black and white by turn portraying her as tough but tender, oh so lonely at the top but cozy enough to kibitz over a hand of presidential hearts on Air Force One. Take that, Jesse!

The Clinton White House has had great success inflaming egotistical politicians with calculated slights. When Newt Gingrich did not get enough attention from Mr. Clinton on the flight home from Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, he petulantly, and disastrously, shut down the government.

But you have to be careful about whose pique you pique. Mr. Jackson's poll numbers have shot up since his Belgrade derring-do, and the White House could provoke him -- death by a thousand cold cuts -- into the presidential race. This would be perverse, given the effort Vice President Al Gore has expended wooing Mr. Jackson out of the race.

In the '88 primary, the reverend had great fun tormenting the stolid, gaffe-prone Mr. Gore. When Mr. Gore said, in a debate in New York, that he understood racism because as a child he had visited a house in the South that had remnants of slave days, Jackson supporters howled.

Mr. Jackson was kind about Mr. Gore's lackluster start for 2000. "I have lots of respect for him," he said in a telephone interview. But he added something that should make Mr. Gore shiver: "And for Bill Bradley."

Mr. Jackson said "Run, Jesse, Run" e-mails had flooded his Chicago office. "The phones have not stopped ringing," he said, sounding pleased but not persuaded.

"Right now," he says, "I'm not going to yield to that temptation."

When Jackson uses the words "now" and "temptation," his subtext for the White House is clear: Lose the cold cuts.

Maureen Dowd is a New York Times columnist.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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