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A candid talk with Jesse Jackson Jr.

U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois, is one of the few leading Democrats who speaks bluntly about the divisions within his own party, about the troubling coziness of conservative Democrats with Republicans, and about the need for radical new approaches to political organizing and electioneering. His outspokenness has provoked serious discussion about how Jackson at the ripe, young age of thirty-six and a mere six years into a Congressional career that even his partisan foes admit has immense potential could well be a candidate for President, if not in 2004, then in some none-too-distant future. To be sure, some of that talk is rooted in the recognition that he possesses one of the most famous names in American public affairs. But Jesse Jackson Jr. is much more than just the son of the father whom he affectionately refers to as "too conservative."

Born and raised in the civil rights movement, the younger Jackson earned advanced degrees in theology and law while cutting his political teeth as an aide to his father's Presidential campaigns and as field director of the National Rainbow Coalition. In 1995, he won a hard-fought special election for a Congressional seat representing south Chicago industrial neighborhoods and the racially diverse communities surrounding them. Since arriving in the first year of the Newt Gingrich Republican Congress, Jackson has clashed not merely with conservative Republicans but also with members of his own party who stray from a progressive course. Along the way, he has earned the respect even of political foes who recognize his ideological and personal integrity. And though he is anything but a cookie-cutter Democrat, he is now one of the most sought-after advocates for party Congressional candidates.

This spring, Jackson sat down in Washington to talk With The Progressive about the meek initial response of Congressional Democrats to the Presidency of George W. Bush, about what progressives need to learn from Ralph Nader's 2000 Presidential candidacy, about the controversy surrounding his father's affair, about his own Presidential prospects, and, above all, about his belief that progressives need to borrow a page from conservatives and begin proposing constitutional amendments. Jackson's new book, A More Perfect Union (Welcome Rain, 2001), written along with aide Frank Watkins, spells out his theory on these amendments and calls for a defiant progressive patriotism.

Q:When the Supreme Court handed the Presidency to George W. Bush in December, the assumption was that he would have a very hard time of it. Yet, after his first 100 days, Bush had reasonably high approval ratings. He certainly hadn't crashed and burned. Why haven't Democrats been better at landing blows on him?

Jesse Jackson Jr.: To understand what's happened with Bush, you really have to look at what happened with Clinton's Presidency--at how his Presidency, in some ways, cleared the way for Bush by moving the Democratic Party to the right. When President Clinton ran in 1992, he ran as the Investment President--talking about getting government to invest in meeting the needs of the American people. But after his election, he became the Deficit Reduction President. That changed expectations about how a Democrat President governs, what a Democratic Party stands for.

President Clinton's selection in 1992 of a conservative running mate, Al Gore, who then selected an even more conservative running mate, Joe Lieberman, was a good indication of what was happening in the leadership of the Democratic Party in the 1990s. President Clinton essentially, used his eight years as President to move closer to Republicans and the right on a number of very important progressive fiscal issues. That meant that, when George Bush became President, he was able to look like a moderate. He was able to look like he was reaching out to the Democrats, when in reality he was merely capturing the localism, the decentralization, the diminishing of the federal government that President Clinton and Al Gore advanced for eight years.

Q: Didn't the Bush Administration also make some of its own success with a few very well-timed assaults on its critics? Your father certainly took his hits when, on the day before he was to lead protests challenging the Bush inaugural, the tabloids appeared with highly charged stories about his personal and financial dealings. Do you think the pre-inaugural focus on your father was part of a deliberate political strategy?

Jackson: I do. But I want to give a balanced answer. Yes, I think it is a part of a political strategy, but if anyone reads that coming from me they're also going to say, "Look, these people aren't perfect. They did throw a little gasoline on the fire." That may be true. Certainly, people made mistakes; things weren't always handled well. Certainly, there were points at which we didn't help ourselves.

But you have to know the nature of our adversaries; they like fodder. The timing of the news stories on January 19, on the day before the inauguration of President Bush, certainly suggests political motivation. On January 19, the story that appeared dealt with a two-and-a-half-year or three-year-old personal family issue that suddenly developed into a tool, used by the right wing, to mute the voice of one of our most prominent activists.

I don't separate what is happening to Reverend Jackson from that which is happening to other advocates and significant voices. Given the history of the right wing, and their investigations of members of the Congressional Black Caucus, African American elected officials, progressive officials, this is a well-established tactic to undermine the credibility of voices who would seek to make the union more perfect. We should be sensitive to this. We shouldn't be unmindful of it. We should recognize that, when mistakes are made, some of these adversaries of ours will play very rough.

Q: It gets complex, doesn't it, when personal mistakes become fodder for the public debate? It must have been personally painful for you to have a family crisis blow up into such a public matter.

Jackson: There were two periods of pain associated with that series of events. One was the initial moment--when my father confessed to each member of the family. That was very painful, but we worked through that. The second painful moment was when I found myself saying that, in addition to what we were going through at a personal, family level, there was also going to have to be a process of public contrition. Through it all, I was very clear that there has to be a distinction between personal morality, personal actions and public morality, public actions. Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Jefferson--all these strong men who gave us so much--also displayed strong flaws. I have always believed that we need to recognize that an imperfect person can still achieve greatness, but I think I understand even better now the vital importance of recognizing the strengths and weaknesses even of our adversaries--and of recognizing that a mistake does not undo all of the good someone has accomplished.

Q: Did you get mad at your father? Were you hurt?

Jackson: Did I hurt? Yes, of course I hurt. I wrote an entry in my very private diary that asked: "What happens when a hero disappoints you? Are they any less a hero?" The answer I came to is this: I have seen more courage, more decency, more morality in my father on his worst day than I have seen in some of the most self-righteous, moralizing people in Washington on their best day.

Name me a general, name me an elected official, name me a great thinker who has done more than the Reverend Jesse Jackson over more years to try and help more people.

Name me a general with the courage the Reverend Jesse Jackson displayed when he went to Syria, when he went to Iraq, when he went again and again to places where diplomacy had broken down in an effort to get Americans back home.

Name me someone who has marched more times over more years with more civil rights groups, women's groups, unions.

The more I thought about what my father has done, the more I recognized that, with all of his mistakes (and he'll be the first to tell you there have been a few), he has accomplished remarkable things on his life journey. And I think I speak not just for my family but for a lot of people in barrios and ghettos and trailer parks all over this country who hope and believe that the Reverend Jackson will be part of our struggles in the years to come, especially as we attempt to forge an effective opposition to the Bush Administration on all the issues of social and economic and environmental justice that mean so much to my father and to the rest of us.

Q: That gets us to a central political question: What should Democrats and, more broadly, progressives be doing to challenge Bush and the Republicans?

Jackson: I think the first challenge is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. Part of the right wing's strength in this public debate is that they have convinced the American people that they--the right--are more American than everyone else, that they are the true patriots. That's why I say there must be a healthy level of patriotism in our progressive efforts to make the union more perfect. Almost all of our efforts over the years have, at some point or another, been seen as unpatriotic. That's why the theme "a more perfect union" for me is so central to all of our efforts--because this must be seen as pro-American activity. It must be seen as patriotic when we advocate on behalf of all of America's children, on behalf of all Americans who are unhealthy, on behalf of all Americans who deserve the right and the liberty to breathe clean air and drink clean water, on behalf of every single American in every trailer park and every ghetto and every condominium and every penthouse that-should they lose their jobs because of the ebbs and flows of Wall Street--their government, the government of the people, is not going to allow their family to fall apart without some basic means of assistance to provide them with human dignity.

Our activity must be seen as patriotic, pro-American activity. Make our critics measure our weakest days against our efforts to make America better for every single person, so that even an American who is unsympathetic to our point of view will say, "I disagree with him on this. I disagree with him on that. But he really is trying to help people." Let us be guilty of that.

Q: What should be done to shake up the Democratic Party?

Jackson: We should start by recognizing that, on a great many issues, Democratic politicians are not much more in touch with the goals of the American people than Republican politicians. Take campaign finance reform. The American people recognize that money--unregulated and even regulated money--presently keeps our House, our Senate, and our Presidency from creating an equal, high-quality education for our children, or from providing all Americans with equal, high-quality health care. The American people believe campaign money prevents them from having a dean, safe, and sustainable environment. Instead of real reform, we get politicians-Democrats and Republicans--voting to raise the limits on campaign contributions to "adjust for inflation." I just don't know many people in the Second District of Illinois who are clamoring to be able to give $3,000 each election cycle to their Congressman. I think they are more interested in adjusting the minimum wage upward--but Congress isn't debating that.

That's why I argue--and I'm going to say it as loudly and clearly as I can--that in order for progressives to be effective, we must resist being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. We must be equal opportunity challengers of Democrats who violate our fundamental principles. If we are seen as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party on these questions, our efforts on behalf of all Americans will simply be reduced to Democratic Party political strategies. When the Democratic Party, through its Blue Dogs and Yellow Dogs and Democratic Leadership Council, is pursuing Clinton-esque, Gore-esque, Lieberman-esque strategies, we must be vocal critics of the shortsightedness of those proposals. They are undermining efforts that could make the union more perfect.

Q: In the 2000 Presidential campaign, you were far more respectful of Ralph Nader than were most prominent Democrats. Nader still won less than 3 percent of the vote. Why wasn't he more successful?

Jackson: His message was greatly separated from the political options of millions of Americans who understood what George Bush's election would represent, and who were not willing to gamble on a true progressive choice like Ralph Nader. My grandmother, who likes my politics and enjoys Mr. Nader, was not willing to risk her Social Security on Nader. So our progressive message must be connected to people who have a vital stake in the preservation and enhancement of their quality of life.

That's my first point about Ralph Nader. My second point about Ralph Nader is this: His efforts, while ideologically correct, underestimated the historical forces and patterns and habits of the American people. It is not enough to just have a public policy prescription that is correct. It must be connected to the spirit, to the bones, to the sinew, and to the vital organs African Americans, Hispanic Americans, women, environmentalists, working men and women, college students--in order for the movement to have life, to have meaning, to have purpose, and to be able to get up and move.

Q: Your upcoming book, A More Per, ct Union, seeks to suggest to progressives a program for making those linkages.

Jackson: What progressives need is an end game that is clearly discernible. The end game for women must be an Equal Rights Amendment that can create the force of law for women who are denied equality in every facet of American life.

The end game for the environment must be to make a safe, clean, and sustainable environment our human right; it's like our First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The number one issue that confronts every American family, as the economy begins to teeter is employment security. Those families need the kind of security that says they will not be allowed to fall beneath a certain floor of human dignity. So the end game must be the right, a constitutionally guaranteed right, to full employment.

Q: Is it your contention that a campaign for a constitutional amendment would make a lot more Americans active participants in democracy?

Jackson: That is correct, absolutely. People would, necessarily, be more active participants. To be enacted, constitutional amendments must win the support of two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the states. Constitutional amendments are not secrets; they require the mass involvement of the people.

Some people say, "Jesse Jr., it's impossible to amend the Constitution of the United States." I respond to them, "But it's been amended twenty-seven times." Some people say, "It takes too long to amend the Constitution of the United States." I respond to them, "One amendment took 202 years, another took ten months." So the range from ten months to 202 years is simply a factor of how deeply the issue burns in the hearts of the American people. The only question before us is, can we start a flame that burns in the hearts of the American people in such a way that whoever the next President of the United States may be, it will be that person's responsibility to uphold and defend these new rights alongside the other rights that we enjoy in our nation?

Q: Don't you think this strategy of pushing for new constitutional amendments will scare the wits out of a lot of progressives, who have spent so much time defending constitutional rights against conservative attacks?

Jackson: Most progressives presently have a defensive strategy; they think that's what progressivism is. What progressives need is an offensive strategy.

In the last Congress, conservatives filed not less than seventy-five amendments to the Constitution-many of which they fought for at the local level. Now, the chances of many of their amendments becoming part of the Constitution are almost nil, but that does not mean that the amendments they put forward have not moved the dialogue in this country. We disagree with the conservatives, but we should recognize that they are fighting for principles that they believe to be fundamental rights. Why aren't progressives fighting just as hard for progressive principles?

Progressives and Democrats say they're about family values. Well, central to every family value is employment security. Why don't progressives want to fight for that as a fundamental human right? If American families were asked which would provide them with greater security, the perceived right to a gun or the right to health care for every member of their family, I think tens of millions of Americans would argue that the right to health care is a more fundamental right.

Q: Could someone run for President on this program?

Jackson: To the extent that a Presidential candidacy is about ideas, and to the extent that a Presidential candidacy is about providing leadership, yes, I think so. Our leadership must raise the expectations of the people and instill in them the faith that our democracy can be responsive to the needs of every single American. We have now witnessed several national campaigns where not only do people have low expectations of our leaders but our leaders have low expectations of the people--and, worst yet, where our leaders have low expectations of the intelligence of the people.

If the people's expectations about the possibility of America changing and being better for all Americans are high, that's a great thing. If the expectations are low, it is not good for our democracy.

Dr. King said it this way: You have to be able to dream about possibilities in order to make change. If we're not willing to dream about possibilities, then we have to play the game by old rules always.

Q: You caused a stir when you traveled to Iowa recently. That is where the first caucuses are held. Are you running for President?

Jackson: I don't want to make light of your question. But I am, at this stage of my political career, more interested in the idea of being a founding father than being a candidate for President. Let me tell you what I mean by that: When you amend the Constitution of the United States, whoever you are, it's as if you were at the first meeting. Because, in our nation, the Constitution of the United States is the great time divider. There was one America before the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection under the law; today, we live in a completely different America because of the Fourteenth Amendment. There was one America before women could vote, and now 51 percent of voters are women.

I want to shape the next America. I want to be a founder of that next America. I want to shape that America where, when someone is denied access to health care, the Solicitor General of the United States goes into court and says, "No, you cannot deny care to this American. You cannot deny care to any American. That care is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States."

John Nichols is Editorial Page Editor of The Capital Times. With Robert W. McChesney he is the author of "It's the Media, Stupid? (Seven Stories, 2000).
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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:3273
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