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RANCHO POTOMAC The Jackson Mystique BY RICHARD RYAN Washington, D. C. THERE HAS BEEN a long tradition of intellectuals holding populists in low esteem. After viewing the first inaugural of FDR, Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Republic that he heard in Roosevelt’s tones, “The unctuousness, the old pulpit vagueness. The thing that emerges most clearly,” he said, “is the warning of a dictatorship.” This seems absurd now, of course, but Wilson wrote out of a democratic suspicion, grounded in the belief that there is a narrow line between populism and demagoguery, between inspiration and manipulation. I may be as wrong about Jesse Jackson as Wilson was about FDR, but I cannot watch the Reverend in action without feeling that I am witnessing the country’s preeminent huckster working the shills. It amazes me that Jackson can hypnotize people who are otherwise fairly sensible; you’d think that eight years of good-natured bluster would be enough, but obviously the Left wants its turn at the trough. The usually intelligent Barbara Ehrenreich admitted recently that Jackson’s rhetoric was demagoguery, but at least it was “old-fashioned, left-wing demagoguery.” Like the feared Reagan spider, the Jackson widow-maker first tightly winds his victims in the sticky cords of his charisma, and then injects a fearsome toxin directly into the brain, wiping out all long-term memory and leaving the hapless prey unable to remember what its assailant looked like, said or promised the week before. In this way, Jackson manages to escape being held personally accountable for past actions and statements that would have permanently crippled any politician not blessed with a Teflon exoskeleton. Fortunately, there are those who have eluded the Jackson web. What are the unbitten among us to make of Jackson’s behavior following the King assassination, which was so offensive that King’s widow and close associates will not to this day support Jackson? And why do progressives taunt Al Gore for his wife’s campaign against lurid rock lyrics when one of the most famous incidents in Jackson’s career was his spat with Mick Jagger over an Richard Ryan writes about politics from Washington, D.C. unquotable line from the song “Some Girls.” Jagger’s famous response to Jackson was “Fuck you if you can’t take a joke.” I can take a joke, which is why I’m not too upset about Jesse’s off-the-cuff “hymietown” remark during the ’84 campaign. What I find less forgivable is Jackson’s refusal to disassociate himself from Louis Farrakhan, after that racist thug threatened the black reporter who had originally quoted Jackson’s offending remark. Yes, when an economist who supports Jackson also tells the Washington Post that the candidate’s domestic policies will produce a $300 billion deficit, it unnerves me. Yes, when an American candidate talks about protecting American jobs by raising wages in the Third World an utterly unrealistic proposal that only a fool or a charlatan would advance as a campaign promise that also unnerves me. When a man who has never held public office starts referring to his world view as “the Jackson doctrine” that really unnerves me. But I have to admit what unnerves me most about Jackson is the excitement he generates. Personally, I like boring politicians; they remind me that conviction, like political power, is vested in the people. Mike Dukakis is dull, but so were George McGovern and Morris Udall, two of the best Democratic candidates in recent memory. Dullness is usually a corollary of competence Jackson supporters dislike Dukakis because the Duke, in his own lackluster way, has used Massachussetts as a laboratory for just the sort of programs that Jackson, in his more substantive moments, claims to support. You’d never know it listening to Jackson boosters, but the fact is that Michael Dukakis will be the most liberal nominee the party has ever produced. He’s consistently supported an activist role for government, and he’s the only candidate besides Jackson advocating real defense cuts. But he doesn’t ooze the magic charisma slime: he doesn’t make you think that a single personality can substitute for activism, pragmatism, and well-defined goals. There is, thank heavens, nothing messianic about Mike Dukakis. Which is not to say that Dukakis cannot inspire confidence among the downtrodden and oppressed. The poorest counties in the United States are on the Texas-Mexico border in these areas Dukakis trounced Jackson by as much as a 2-1 margin. Indeed, Hispanics in Texas and Florida flooded the Dukakis camp, and secured his victories in both those primaries. Virtually every reason given for supporting Jackson crumbles under close inspection. Take the principle of empowerment, which holds that a voter, given the choice between a white candidate and an equally qualified female or minority opponent, should always pick the representative of the disenfranchised. This strikes me as intuitively right, but there are two problems with applying it in Jackson’s case. First, Jackson simply isn’t as qualified as Dukakis. Second, Jackson has not, in this campaign, applied the principle himself. In seeking an aura of acceptability Jackson has increasingly surrounded himself with white advisors. A tinted friend of mine who recently signed onto Jackson’s issues staff was going over the roster of prominent Jackson aides: campaign manager Gerald Austin; southern strategist Bert Lance; wheel greaser Ann Lewis; chief policy advisor Mark Steitz. “Not a brother among them,” sighed my friend. Or sister. So much for empowerment. *** On-the-Other-Hand Dept: I must take issue with one frequently cited reason for opposing Jackson: the claim that he is “unelectable.” The Observer has been the target of complaints from readers who construe the editors’ Jackson endorsement as an example of the suicidal tendencies progressive flesh is heir to. While it’s true that recent polls show Bush beating Jackson by 20 points, the “electability” standard is an unnatural and immoral threshold. Were Jackson to receive the party nomination, that victory alone would almost certainly erase a large portion of the deficit separating him from Bush, and then the Rev could use his considerable campaign skills to pummel the shrill and mencing Vice President: Bush is an eminently beatable opponent. When voters start making compromises, voting for candidates they think will win rather than candidates they admire, it very quickly becomes impossible to make any significant changes in the existing political reality. The status quo becomes selfperpetuating, and the moral dimension of politics is lost. I think Jackson is a bad 8 MAY 6, 1988