LORDY, LORDY, why does he do these things?
That was the thought going constantly through my mind Friday as I sat in a meeting room of the Renaissance Hotel in Washington. Before me stood the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the man I've skewered many a time in this column. Jackson addressed over 20 black columnists who are members of the Trotter Group, named for William Monroe Trotter, the African-American journalist who, in a face-to-face meeting, took President Woodrow Wilson to task for his segregationist policies.
There are many benefits to being a member of the Trotter Group, not the least of which is getting the chance to interview the movers and shakers in America's political life. Members of the group met with President Bill Clinton during his term of office. On a single day in 2002, I joined with other members as we interviewed the chairmen of the Republican and Democratic national committees and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
This year several Trotter columnists interviewed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and, earlier, Gen. Wesley Clark when he was still a candidate. I still remember Clark's answer when I asked him why he was opposed to appointing judges who might overturn precedents.
"Without judges willing to overturn precedents," I said, "Plessy v. Ferguson, not Brown v. Board of Education, might still be the law of the land." The former ruling, in the late 19th century, saw the Supreme Court affirm the concept of "separate but equal," while the 1954 Brown decision declared the notion unconstitutional.
"Yes," Clark responded, "but I believe judges should expand rights, not restrict rights."
Those of you who thought judges were to interpret the law as written and act as a check and balance on the executive and legislative branches of government now stand corrected.
Friday was Jackson's turn to address the Trotters. He started off well enough, telling us how his 1984 and 1988 runs for the presidency helped to open doors for black journalists covering presidential campaigns and to register millions of black voters who tipped the scales for the Democrats in 1986, when they regained the Senate, and again in 1992 and 1996, when Clinton was elected and then re-elected.
But from that benign beginning, Jackson descended into the language of race-baiting, about a subject on which race is, at best, a peripheral issue.
"There are 50 state separate and unequal voting systems," Jackson proclaimed. He elaborated by telling the Trotters that in Wisconsin, for example, felons can vote when they're still in prison. In Illinois, felons have to re-register to vote.
Yes, and for years Maryland had a system that required two-time felons to appeal to the governor to regain the right to vote. There's nothing "separate and unequal" here, except what's provided for in the Constitution: Powers not specifically delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people. Wisconsin, if it were a death penalty state, could have felons vote even while strapped to a lethal injection table. Illinois, or Maryland, could restrict the voting rights of felons for one day, one year or forever. It's none of the federal government's business.
And it's certainly not "separate and unequal" in the same sense that the Supreme Court used the term in the Brown case that outlawed segregation in schools. Illinois' law pertains to all felons, not just black ones. Maryland's, before Democrats here changed the law so their party could wrap up the thug vote, was the same. Advocates of voting rights for felons - and Jackson is one of those advocates - who love to point out that laws restricting such rights have an adverse impact on blacks are acknowledging that black criminals commit crimes far out of proportion to the number of African-Americans in the general population.
This race-baiting business must come easily to Jackson. He spoke of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott and other Republicans adhering to a "Confederate" philosophy because they have this curious notion that the 10th Amendment hasn't quite been repealed. The word Jackson could have used, were he not addicted to race-baiting, would have been "Madisonian" or "Jeffersonian" - that philosophy, addressed in the 10th Amendment, that takes seriously the limited powers of the federal government and the reserved rights of state governments.
Northern states, before the Civil War, used just that philosophy when they passed personal liberty laws to protest the Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed federal marshals to raid their states and virtually kidnap not only escaped slaves but free blacks as well. Jackson knows that history, and he knows the idea of states' rights is not restricted to "Confederates" alone.
But "Madisonian" and "Jeffersonian" don't quite have the villainous ring of "Confederate," do they?