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Jesse Jackson: 'What progressives must do is keep focusing on the moral center, not the political center.' (Cover Story) (Interview)

When the overwhelming nature of the Republican victory in the November midterm elections became clear, the nation's most prominent Democratic elected officials seemed to be punch-drunk. President Clinton and his White House minions struggled with little success to come up with a satisfactory explanation, as did most of their Congressional cohorts.

But the Reverend Jesse Jackson knew precisely what had gone wrong. By failing to deliver on promises to African-Americans, to women, and to trade unionists, the Democratic White House and Congress had broken faith with the party's base, Jackson said, and as a result millions of traditionally loyal Democrats stayed home on November 8.

While most top Democrats turned to pollsters and pundits in hopes of finding a road map back to power, Jackson proposed a cleaner route: Stand again for the principles that elected Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and, yes, even Bill Clinton. Renew the Party's commitment to social justice and civil rights, and reinvigorate the base.

It was not a new message for Jackson, who came on the national scene in the 1960s as an aide to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., developed into the nation's most identifiable civil-rights leader in the 1970s, and in the 1980s built unprecedented coalitions of farmers and inner-city residents, of academics and factory workers in support of two progressive campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

As progressives look to the 1996 Presidential election, many speak openly about their hopes that Jackson will again seek the Presidency--either as a Democratic primary challenger to Clinton or as a third-party candidate.

Jackson does not relish the prospect of launching a third Presidential bid. He still hopes President Clinton will embrace a more progressive agenda and eliminate the need to discuss a challenge. If that does not happen, however, Jackson admits that he would consider a candidacy.

Jackson and I discussed the Clinton Presidency at length several weeks after the election. He also deconstructed the new Republican Congressional majority, while boldly tackling the Christian Coalition, Rush Limbaugh, and the conservative, business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council. Jackson spoke of a progressive agenda to battle conservative hegemony. And he explained how religious faith and a sense of responsibility have kept him committed to a struggle that he acknowledges is "unending."

Q: The Republicans showed surprising strength at the polls, while Democrats were overwhelmed even in traditional areas of strength. Why do you think that was the case?

Jesse Jackson: It's not so much a tidal wave as it was that our walls were low. If you have a five-foot wall and there are three-foot waves, it doesn't bother you that much. But if you have three-foot waves and a one-foot wall, then it's a flood.

In so many instances, the base of cities and labor and workers and blacks was low, demoralized.

There were tremendous expectations coming out of 1992. What labor got out of the deal essentially was NAFTA and the promise of GATT--that did not inspire them. Cities were promised economic stimulus and economic development banks; they got none of that. Blacks were promised more justice; instead we got more jails--the biggest crime bill in the history of the country. So much of the base was weakened.

You also had key Democratic officials who were running against the President and who were ashamed to make public the legislative accomplishments that had been made. For example: five million new jobs, earned-income tax credits, the Family Leave Act, Motor Voter, more diverse appointment of judges--black, Hispanic, and female. Deficit down, inflation down, more markets, South Africa and Namibia free, Haiti in recovery, peace breaking out in the Middle East, rather than war. Those are the things that were not advertised in their commercials.

All the Democratic advertisements were based around how firm their commitment was to lock people up and burn them up, and in some instances they became indistinguishable from the Republicans. And when people have the choice between the real thing and a facsimile, they'll choose the real thing.

Not only did many of the Democrats attack the President, not only were they afraid to identify with the successes, they ran from the base of working-class people and labor and blacks.

Q: You've noted some of Bill Clinton's accomplishments, but don't you think he has to shoulder much of the blame for that disenchantment on the part of African-Americans and union members?

Jackson: He raised the expectations. He was the one who talked about the idea of dealing with big-ticket items: the idea of reclaiming our children--which is bigger than one party. The idea of reinvesting in the infrastructure of our cities, and the real struggle for economic stimulus. The idea of a national health-care plan for the American people. Bill Clinton didn't run a campaign on NAFTA--Bush ran on "the fast track" and got beat. Clinton didn't run a campaign on "three strikes and you're out" and the most massive jail plan in the history of the country.

Bill Clinton did some things that I thought were significant, and I didn't run away from the Democrats. I campaigned in twenty-two states and about sixty cities. I campaigned furiously because I felt I had to make a decision based upon where I see direction, priorities, service, character, and alternatives. I saw the alterantives to the Democrats being Newt Gingrich and Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Phil Gramm, and so forth. And so I thought that was worth fighting.

But many people simply gave up.

Q: It's interesting that the prospect of Helms and Thurmond serving as Senate Committee Chairmen didn't come up much during the campaign.

Jackson: In the '60s, George Wallace and Bull Connor were in the center of the stage; those who threatened you were constantly there as reminders. Fundamentally, in this last campaign, those who represent the biggest threats to our progress were not on the center stage every day. You didn't see Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm and Orrin Hatch, as you saw, say, Ollie North.

When people could see an Ollie North, they voted against him. When people can see the right hand coming, they know to get out of the way. But, fundamentally, those forces that now seek to unravel all of our gains all the way back to the New Deal were not very apparent.

Q: The Republicans put forward a relatively united front--offering very simple, basic themes. The Democrats seemed to lack that sort of coordination, didn't they?

Jackson: The thing the Democrats must come to grips with is that it's hard to win unless you operate your coalition under one big tent.

The Democratic Leadership Council is a fundamental split in the Democratic Party. Here's a group of Democratic officials--of which Clinton was president at one point. And they've been involved in various distancing schemes. The distancing schemes relative to me--as a dominant persona because of the campaigns I've run--extended down to every level. People felt that same distancing strategy across the board.

The DLC is a privatized, suburban wing of the Democratic Party.

Now, the members of the Rainbow Coalition have registered more Democrats than any other entity in the last twelve years. But there has never been a meeting between the Rainbow--say five or six of our members--and the DLC and the Democratic National Committee, where we sit around a common table and look at where we agree and where we disagree. The idea of such a meeting would be agree to agree, agree to disagree, but try to work out a common agenda.

There's never been a meeting to create one big tent among those forces within the party.

Q: Do you think the latest election results might raise the prospects for such a meeting?

Jackson: I don't know. Some [conservative Democrats], to me, appear to be punch-drunk because they're not clear on the fact that DLC members lost--McCurdy in Oklahoma lost, Sasser in Tennessee lost. The people who attacked Clinton the most during the campaign were DLC members. Many of them, in fact, feel far more connected to the Republican Party than to the historical Democratic Party--they're eigher Republicrats or Demopublicans.

A Republican leader named Lincoln once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The DLC is a fundamental split. They've got their own organization, their own rules, they've got just a smattering of blacks that they kind of hand-picked, and nobody from labor. They call themselves the "new Democrats" in contrast to the old ones. They look upon the old ones with some degree of contempt. You can't have the new Boston Celtics and the old Boston Celtics playing on the same team in Boston Garden.

Q: Clinton's post-election press conference and a number of his other statements seemed to signal a willingness to compromise with the Republicans.

Jackson: All I know is that the Republicans will deal with President Clinton because he has executive power. They'll deal with him, but they won't vote for him. As Newt says, they will cooperate with him, but they won't compromise with him.

In other words, they'll vote for NAFTA with President Clinton because it's their fast-track they're pushing--for more advantage for businesses that want to move across the border to Mexico. They'll vote with him on that because they gain something out of it. It excites their base and traumatizes his base. The Republicans will give President Clinton a crime bill, which excites their base. But his base is interested in prevention before the crime occurs, because we know that you fight welfare and crime with jobs and education.

Q: On an issue like crime, for instance, you would say that progressives need to offer alternatives.

Jackson: For people who are interested in social justice, the issue is not three strikes and you're out. The issue is four balls and you're on. Four balls and you're on is our tradition: prenatal care and Head Start--ball one. An adequately funded public education--ball two. A marketable skill or access to college--ball three. And a job--ball four, and you're on. Lifting children up, not just locking them up and burning them up, is the alternative to the jail-industrial complex.

In other words, I think that what progressives must do is keep focusing on the moral center as our guide, not the political center. The moral center is not left or right--it's forward rather than backward. The moral center is: We must put forth a plan to reclaim America's children--they are in trouble. We must put forth a plan to reinvest in our infrastructure and revive our cities and put people back to work on real jobs. We must put forth a national health-care plan. We must put forth not only an information superhighway but also a national transportation system. That's what we have to do.

Q: Do you think President Clinton is prepared to do that?

Jackson: That's what must happen. Some of that is in the Covenant he talked about during the 1992 campaign. Gingrich talks about a Contract for a few Americans; Clinton wrote down a Covenant for all Americans. We can't adopt the Contract, we have to fight for the Covenant.

Q: Throughout your life you've battled right-wing Southern politicians. Two of your adversaries, George Wallace and Lester Maddox, were part of a tradition that could be traced back through Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats to the opponents of the New Deal and to earlier even more nefarious figures. Now that a new group of Southerners is rising, I wonder whether you see Wallace and Maddox merely as regional predecessors to the Gingrich Republicans or as something more?

Jackson: They're not just regional predecessors, they're ideological predecessors.

Newt Gingrich says, for example, that they intend to wipe out the "legacy" of the Great Society programs--not just end the programs, but end the very expectations. He said he wants to end the very idea of the Great Society, which was a dream of reaching down to those who were on the bottom and lifting them up, and reaching out to those who had been locked out or pushed out. Then he said he wanted to go further than that. He said everything except Social Security in the New Deal he wanted to wipe out as well.

You do recall that the conservatives--the ideological conservatives--resisted the New Deal because it stood for things like collective bargaining rights for workers, child labor laws, vacations, checks and balances between management and labor. Conservatives, by and large, were in favor of right-to-work laws, they were pro-management over workers, as opposed to checks and balances. If conservatives had had their way, we never would have had the middle class that we have today, which came into being because workers were given basic rights and made co-partners in the process of industrial development.

Newt mentioned Social Security as the only thing he wouldn't touch--because it's such a hot potato today. But he goes back into his own language to those ideological predecessors.

That's just as true when you look at the 1960s, when really the classic race was in 1964 where, in the heat of that great period of challenge, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Lester Maddox really were on one side of history. On the other side of history were the Kennedy legacy, Lyndon Johnson, and Dr. King. In that race, the Kennedy-Johnson-King side of history prevailed.

For the vision they put forth, Johnson was rejected by many Southerners as having betrayed the tradition and the culture, and Dr. King was killed. But out of that struggle came the public accommodations bill, open housing, self determination, human rights as a measuring stick for relations between people and between countries. Out of that struggle came a commitment to wipe out malnutrition--even people like Senator Ernest Hollings began to focus on malnutrition and human need. All of that came out of Great Society programs. Really, the Great Society and the War on Poverty were successful, except we diverted attention from the War on Poverty to the war in Vietnam, and then Nixon came and began to dismantle the Great Society.

One of the things to remember about Newt and his followers--in their zealotry and bigotry and meanness--is that they have used race baiting for a long time as a factor, as well as fears about gender equality, and fears about workers misusing power, if they ever had it relative to management.

Q: Do you think the Republicans are playing on misconceptions that suggest Great Society programs were designed to help people of color?

Jackson: Every program that Gingrich proposes to slash and burn numerically affects more whites than blacks. Look at welfare. Numerically there are forty million people in poverty, and twenty-nine million of them are white. The poor are mostly white, female, and young.

Whether it's food stamps or welfare, all of the image manipulation that seeks to make these programs something for people who are black and "lazy" does not represent the reality of the universe of people helped by those programs. But the Republicans continue to manipulate these issues. Whether it's Jesse Helms's campaign ads, or the way they manipulated the Haiti issue or the South Africa issue, they have race-baited for so long that sometimes I think they believe their own clippings about developing some schemes to punish blacks to the extent that it will excite whites.

Q: What do you think is the prime motivation for Gingrich and the others? Is it a genuine belief in the conservative cause, or is it something more dangerous?

Jackson: I think it's something more dangerous. It wouldn't be conservative economics to choose to build all these prisons. It costs $60,000 a year to keep a kid at Riker's Island; at other jails it's around $40,000. Anybody who would invest $40,000 to $60,000 a year to lock somebody up, rather than $6,000 to $8,000 a year to lift them up, is not using conservative economics.

They talk about fiscal conservatism. But if you really want to be fiscally responsible, then you would lead the way on campaign-finance reform. The way we finance our campaigns now is corrupting the voting process. The big corporations are simply buying votes with perks.

If the Republicans are against entitlements, then you would think they would start with the biggest entitlements, which would be the military entitlements. It doesn't make sense at this stage for us--having a military budget larger than all the others in the world combined--to increase the military budget while cutting the education and housing budgets. We do not have a military deficit in the world, we do have a housing deficit--a lack of adequate housing. Increasing the military budget doesn't stand to reason; that's not fiscally conservative.

The Republicans are not fiscally conservative, they're bullies. They begin with a plan to attack the women and the children. That's the way bullies operate. They attack women and children as opposed to S&L thieves, as opposed to the campaign-finance corrupters. Women and children, at this point, are the punching bags.

Q: What do you see as the ultimate goal for those who make up this new Republican majority?

Jackson: Some of it is not changing things as much as being in charge of things. Take, for example, this Christian Coalition. We must always be wary when someone attempts to bottle up the faith and use it as a tool.

The Christian Coalition, you know, reminds me of something with roots in Germany in the 1930s. That was a Christian coalition: It excluded people who weren't Christian, it became a part of the ideological underpinning and rationalization for the seamy and ugly conclusion in Germany--the determining of who was worthy and who was unworthy to live.

Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was written to the Christian coalition. The white ministers in Birmingham--who had never raised their voices for racial justice or general equality or the rights of workers to organize--publicly challenged him for coming to Birmingham and demanded to know what his motives were. So the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" was to the Christian coalition, and yet here they are now--still having never raised their voices for racial justice or for general equality or for the rights of workers, or for the poor and the disenfranchised and the dispossessed.

By definition, there are no Jewish members of the Christian Coalition. There are just a smattering of blacks--just enough for the Coalition to cover itself.

Fundamentally, if you look at their positions--whether it's on South Africa or Haiti or civil rights or racial justice--there is a spirit there that does not reflect the compassion or the character of the faith. They've franchised the name, but their positions do not reflect the character of the faith.

Q: One of the first things that Gingrich started talking about was prayer in the schools. As a minister and an individual, how do you react to that proposal?

Jackson: I believe in prayer. It's a part of my daily ritual. But in a public-education setting in a country that is multicultural and ecumenical, you can't very well impose your religion. There are many schools in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles where there are sometimes sixty-five and seventy different nationalities in one school. So it should not be postured that those who oppose prayer in school have any less commitment to religion and character, yet it's spun that way.

As far as I'm concerned, as long as you have exams on Friday, you'll always have prayer in school. There's no need to have Newt Gingrich as a national chaplain.

Q: For many conservatives, you remain a prime target. Rush Limbaugh, in particular, takes frequent shots at you. Why do you think conservative figures such as Limbaugh spend so much time attacking you personally?

Jackson: Because they feel threatened by the vision I project.

I am on the King-Kennedy-Johnson side of the equation. They are with the Goldwater-Maddox-Wallace side of it.

There's a history to this struggle between conservatives and liberals.

Slave masters were the conservatives. Abolitionists were the liberators.

The conservatives were against women's suffrage. The liberators were for it.

The conservatives were against the right of workers to organize labor unions. The liberals, the liberators were for it.

The conservatives were against the 1954 Supreme court decision. The liberators were for it.

Limbaugh is a quasi-politician entertainer who exploits gender and race-baits.

And take this guy, Bob Grant, the New York talk-radio host. This guy says that welfare mothers are maggots, that blacks are savages, that Magic Johnson's HIV should mature faster into AIDS so that he can lead by example.

Hate is now a commodity. It's an industry. Limbaugh, Grant, they're not entertaining, they're campaigning. They are on a crusade to turn the clock back.

But I can tell you that those who used zealotry and bigotry and meanness in the past were not successful in stopping the clock from going forward. And those who use it now will not be successful in turning the clock back.

Q: You must be aware that there are a great many progressives around the country who would like to have you at least consider running for President again in 1996, potentially in the Democratic primaries.

Jackson: There are those who figure I should do it in the Democratic primaries. There are those who figure I should do it as an Independent. We've not yet made that decision. All options in our struggle for change must be kept alive.

Our commitment really is to social justice and to fairness. The party is just a vehicle. At its best it should be used for justice and change.

Neither party, for example, took an initiative in 1964 for us to be seated at a national convention. Neither party took a leadership role on the march from Selma to Montgomery. The points where we've made real progress have always been led by the people outside of the political trading match. By and large, the horse races have not made good leaders for social change; the winners are bound by too many other vested and clandestine and private interests.

Q: Obviously, you know that there are many people who think another run for President on your part might advance the causes about which you care so deeply.

Jackson: A campaign for the Presidency is such a responsibility and such a dangerous mission and carries with it the weight of so many people's needs. It just always strikes me in terms of the responsibilities. I ran the first time in 1984 because I felt I was obligated to run. It was no pleasure cruise.

I am prepared in the sense of my commitment to justice and fairness in America, my commitment to inclusion, my commitment to coalition in our country--over and against polarization, my commitment to justice at home and peace in the world. It's just my public-service obligation.

I would rather, given the number of allies that we now have who have acquired power, I would rather broaden the base and have Clinton regain the vision. It's easier to keep the White House than to try to get it again, if you get my point. I'm not anxious to run in that sense. As my first choice I would hope that the Covenant would be honored, that a "putting people first" agenda would be put back on the front burner again.

If that does not happen, then somebody will run in the primaries, and perhaps somebody will run even as an independent.

All of those are live options.

The first option is to return to the coalition and the dream that won for us.

Q: That would put the burden on Bill Clinton.

Jackson: That's it. I think the burden is upon him. If he makes a move toward accommodating this madness of Gingrich and Dole and Gramm, then he'll be pushing Democrats out from under the tent. The latest polls show that 53 percent of the American people see both parties as out of date. There are more people who feel locked out than who are locked in in the first place. And so if Bill Clinton moves any further toward the political center, then he's moving too far away from the moral center.

The integrity of our struggle demands that we fight for the moral center. As you know, in slavery times, there was a political center where bad guys said, "Be a brutal slave master," and good guys said, "Be a benevolent one." But both accepted the assumptions of slave mastery. So that was the political center, but it was not the moral center. The moral center was abolition of slavery.

The political center can be built upon expediency, and without a moral foundation. We must keep fighting for a center that has moral foundation.

Q: There are a number of people who see you--with your national profile--as one of the few Americans who could lead a battle to reassert that moral center. Do you understand their sentiments?

Jackson: I understand that. I think it's because I've tried to be consistent in this struggle across the years.

I went to jail July 17, 1960, for trying to use a library, and across the years I've tried to remain consistent--whether it was fighting for basic civil rights, or for peace, or social justice, or gender equality, or freedom in South Africa. I've known, in terms of my career as a public servant, that being consistent and building coalitions was the right thing to do.

Q: What through these long years has given you the strength to maintain that commitment?

Jackson: My faith is a big factor in that. My faith is a part of my basic sense of what I see as my mission in life.

On the other hand, I have walked beside some good people who gave their lives the full measure of their devotion. They just didn't give up. I was there when Dr. King was killed. I preached Whitney Young's funeral in Nigeria. People with whom I've worked and walked--people like Fannie Lou Hamer--they never gave up. And I think that so long as I shall live I shall keep giving my best. It is in some sense a burden I have for the tradition of our struggle.

Q: Do you see a point in your lifetime where you could say the struggle is done, or is it a struggle that is never finished?

Jackson: No, the struggle is unending. This struggle is unending.

Q: Do you remain confident that, given a true progressive option, the American people would support it?

Jackson: Oh yes. I think there are American people who voted Republican in the 1994 elections on a very narrow basis--who got caught up in the anti-crime, anti-incumbency wave. Now, as they watch Gingrich interpret the Contract, they will see things differently.

The American people did not vote based on interpretation of the Contract.

Most American people do not want to deface the Statue of Liberty's promise. What Gingrich is standing for, what Charles Murray is standing for, they would have us wipe out the Statue of Liberty invitation, which I think represents the very character of our country. That invitation is to "those who yearn to breathe free."

The greatness of our country is that the invitation is extended to all those who yearn to breathe free. That's who we really are. There is a battle for the soul of our country. But I have no doubt that, in time, the struggle to expand America--to make it more inclusive, to make it more humane--will prevail.
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Author:Nichols, John
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:4607
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