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Thunder in America: the improbable campaign of Jesse Jackson.

Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms. Thunder in America: The Improbable Campaign of Jesse Jackson.

Both these men spend a lot of timein churches castigating devils, including each other. In the spring of 1984, presidential candidate Jesse Jackson flew to Raleigh to support Gov. Jim Hunt, then challenging incumbent Jesse Helms in the most expensive campaign in Senate history. "With 200,000 more blacks registered, Jesse Helms could be put out of work,' Jackson declared. He toured black churches, then flew out of the state and left the registration work largely to Hunt. In direct response to Jackson, Jesse Helms toured the white churches of North Carolina with Jerry Falwell and a honey-voiced preacher named Lamarr Mooneyham, whose Moral Majority workers managed to register more Helms conservatives than Hunt registered Democrats.

Helms won narrowly, running well behind theReagan landslide. These books* suggest that his margin of victory lay in mobilized white antipathy to Jesse Jackson. Similarly, in five states where Jackson's freedom train inspired a massive upsurge of black registration, adding some 400,000 new black voters, white registration jumped 1.2 million. The obvious lesson is that in primitive contests of racial solidarity, the numbers tell heavily against American blacks. Jackson, while drawing as much as 85 percent of the black vote, never received more than 9 percent of the white vote in a presidential primary. This is why those Democratic politicians who look eagerly toward a Jackson re-run in 1988 tend to be from districts that are overwhelmingly black. No one else can afford the psychic boost.

* Hard Right: The Rise of Jesse Helms. Ernest B. FurgursonNorton, $18.95.

* Thunder in America: The Improbable Campaign of JesseJackson. Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton. Texas Monthly Press, $16.95.

The two Jesses are outsiders of oppositestripes. Helms holds real power--he has built a national money machine, he practically writes the Republican platforms, he owns a score of ambassadors and an oversized toehold in the Senate--and yet clings to his self-image as a victim. He protests against persecution by the "elite media,' appeasers of communism, and faint-hearted conservative pragmatists. He fillibusters. He stands on his hind legs. Whereas the Reagan administration projects pained tolerance for South Africa and Pinochet, Helms loves them. He pushes his position to an obstreperous extreme and then complains of the result. Ernest Furgurson is at his best in showing what a lifelong achievement it has been for Helms who began his career as the spokesman for North Carolina's banking industry and always since has made alliance with privilege to pass himself off as an underdog. For 35 years, Helms's most consistently effective tactic in this charade has been to cry out over the travail of the white race, which he sees oppressed by liberals, secular humanists, and minority leaders such as Jesse Jackson.

Bedding down with the Lumbee

Jackson came by his outsider credentials morenaturally. As the bastard son of a poor teenage mother, he battled against pariah status even within the black leadership class, let alone amongst the majority whites. He represents a poor constituency in a rich nation, the left on a spectrum where the left is largely extinct. By way of consolation, these long odds offer Jackson a freedom from constraint that he often has used imaginatively. Unlike Helms, whose chutzpah is dull and colorless, Jackson entertains even his enemies. He wiggles and winks, flies off to Cuba and Syria on impossible missions of shocking common sense, beds down his Secret Service squad with Lumbee Indians near Pembroke's Chicken Road, and lures Fidel Castro into church for the first time in three decades. Although he often speaks in Muhammed Ali doggerel, which is tiresome and condescending, he also possesses a rakish wit and the gift of cross-cultural perception. Like Malcolm X., Jackson teaches as well as amuses when he explains, for instance, why he thinks none of the American television networks maintains a bureau anywhere in black or Arab Africa.

These two books are narrow politicalbiographies, variations on Theodore White's genre of post-campaign analysis. As such, they proceed relentlessly from speech to meeting to poll to speech. Furgurson in particular stretches political argument into biography, giving more ammunition than enlightenment. Driven by his argument, he sees no leavening merit anywhere in Helms's record, not even in his quixotic effort to save the hapless seaman Medvid from the Russians and the Reagan bureaucracy. The few attempts at personal interpretation, such as the assertion that journalism school would have corrected Helms's right-wing screed, are hamhanded and specious. In conventional terms that might be applied equally to Jackson, Furgurson attacks Helms as a radical, an emotionalist, a threat to stability, a stranger to institutional respect. Both books take the pundit's usual view that because most of the votes are in the center, these two fringe politicians can only hope to move the center--that neither can be the center, hold power.

As this is hardly news, the books might appealonly to those specially interested in Helms or Jackson. However, if one holds that the political center is sinking--that the moral and economic health of the country is being mortgaged steadily beyond repair--then the books offer valuable lessons about failures on the left and right. Furgurson, writing before the November elections and the recent Iran scandals, detected signs of a fatal weakness in the conservative movement. Time in office made it harder for Helms and Reagan to run as "aginners.' More importantly, they were betraying conservatism's most appealing premise of self-discipline, its steely respect for facts and limits. Furgurson reported that Helms's technocratic, direct-mail money machine was spending 98.6 percent of revenues on itself. Only 1.4 percent went to favored candidates. This was a standard of larceny unmatched by all but the most fraudulent of charities. Against it, all the "market-tested devil figures' in the world could not save the conservative movement from self-indulgent corruption compounded by the usual arrogance.

Burying the rainbow

The failure on the left is more complicated, andFaw and Skelton have responded with a more sensitive, discerning book. Readers put off, as I was, by the prominently advertised "Foreword by Dan Rather,' will find a pleasant surprise of artful prose and vivid characters. Their sketch of the ferociously wounded candidate's wife, Jacqueline Jackson, is sadly convincing. Their portraits of Jackson's advisers, vacillating between euphoria and disillusionment, and of politicians maneuvering between black pride and survival, build toward glimpses of revelation. During Jackson's long speech at the San Francisco convention, several of his supporters are described as cursing him in despair over the elements of conciliatory statesmanship in that speech--for not telling the whites and the Democrats to shove it--until one saw whites crying in the convention hall and realized, ""My God, I'm part of something big.'' Through treacherously sensational material, the authors maintain not only their balance but also their humor. Perhaps because their story is so complex, they make no pretext of imposing a politically correct viewpoint, and the happy result is a book that rings true.

Jackson's feud with American Jewish leadersappears as a tragedy that resonates far beyond the ethnic rivalries of a single presidential campaign. The hostilities described between "Hymie' and "schwartze' seem both searing and petulant, real and contrived. The nub of contention-- Jackson's private reference to New York as "Hymietown' and his subsequent reluctance to apologize--emerges as only a pale reflection of the hositilities. Numerous Jackson advisers adopted a bilious attitude of "fuck the Jews,' and Jackson himself deeply resented the assumption that he would embrace apology more warmly than, say, Ronald Reagan or Ariel Sharon. Some Jewish leaders, for their part, are described as admitting that the "Hymie' remark was a pretext for deeper animosity, that they would have hated Jackson no matter how heartfelt his apology.

This is a bigot's dream--deepseated hatred betweenminorities. On the other hand, the book presents some evidence that black and Jewish leaders are inciting rather than accommodating mass hatred, in the manner of classical demagogues, and are much more hostile toward each other than are their respective followers, who tend to look on in puzzled sadness. Ties between blacks and Jews rest on too much history and common sense to be so easily discarded. It is no accident that the vast majority of American black churches take their names from the Old Testament--Mt. Zion, Ebenezer, Mt. Moriah, and so on. Not only were the yarns of the Old Testament more accessible to those denied literacy, as was the quest of Moses riveting to a people in slavery, but the political, theocratic role of Moses was adopted by black preachers in a society that permitted no black institution of authority other than the church. The Old Testament helps explain why the first black presidential candidate was a preacher instead of a banker. The music of the spirituals is largely Old Testament music, and such things still run deep.

Practically speaking, the factors thattransformed that cultural tie into a political alliance are still valid today. Both blacks and Jews remain minorities acutely sensitive to the historical cycles of persecution. In the last two centuries they placed their hopes in alliances with people of good will and in appeals to universal standards of justice. This produced the Jewish utopianism that lay at the intellectual foundations of the political left all over the world, and it led to the civil rights movement. What has changed in the last twenty years--since Israel's Six Day War and the rise of black power--is that the leaders have created an illusionary world of surly self-sufficiency, competing among themselves in resentment against the need for alliances. Many old Jewish leftists have turned into neo-conservatives. They identify with the powerful rather than the oppressed, even though it is the powerful who have hurled down the historical repressions of Jews. The Jewish utopian tradition has virtually vanished in American thought, such that candidate Jesse Jackson found himself leading not only blacks but an atrophied political left, which he optimistically called the Rainbow Coalition.

Jackson allowed race to swallow up his effortto revive an American left as an alternative to the sagging center. He buried dollops of fresh Rainbow Coalition in a thousand choruses of "Our time has come.' Perhaps this was inevitable, as the twin burdens of race and ideology worked against each other. To devise and hold steadfastly to a political program based on universal standards touching the legitimate aspirations of all peoples would have required not only genius in Jackson, but also superhuman patience. It might well have gained him nothing but a tepid reception among blacks. Cornered, he settled for a campaign to harvest the available acclaim. His course mirrors the insularism of black politicians who have little to offer their constituencies beyond vicarious participation in their own success as leaders, and of Jewish leaders who expect short, victorious wars. Long before Jesse Helms, leaders short on vision and substance learned to make good use of devils.
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Author:Branch, Taylor
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1987
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