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The 'Hymie' Incident : Jesse Jackson Claimed His Comments Were Harmless. But With a Few Phrases, He Tore at the Fragile Bonds Between Blacks and Jews. An Excerpt From a New Book Chronicling the Jackson Campaign.

October 19, 1986|BOB FAW and NANCY SKELTON | Adapted from "Thunder in America," by Bob Faw, a CBS News correspondent, and the late Nancy Skelton, a Times staff writer, to be published this month by Texas Monthly Press.

Feb. 26, 1984. Temple Adath Yeshurun, Manchester, N.H. The campaign, and the candidate, were at a breaking point. Ramrod straight, Jesse Jackson strode to the front of the synagogue, his fists clenched tight at his sides, his eyes darting across the tense crowd. Later, he would describe the scene as "Daniel in the lion's den," but in some ways it was also Greenville, S.C., all over again, 34 years ago when he was 8 and had whistled in the white man's grocery for service and the owner had pointed a loaded .45 pistol at his head to teach him his place. Then, as now, Jackson found himself cornered by his own pride.

This time he had poked fun at Jews by calling them "Hymie" and New York City "Hymie-town," and what he'd said had been quoted and condemned in the Washington Post. At first he had denied the remarks; then, turning street fighter, he had tried to put Jews on the defensive, accusing them of making him the target of a Jewish conspiracy to ruin his campaign. But the counterattack hadn't worked, and day by day the furor had grown. Within two weeks his historic run for the presidency had nearly collapsed, and Jackson was trapped: There was no choice now but to swallow his pride and own up to his mistake.

For the past several days Jackson had been "literally torn apart," as one aide put it, trying to find his way out of the "Hymie" mine field. The controversy had done more than throw his campaign off stride--it had also changed Jackson. "It put him on the defensive, made him go almost into a shell. He was not the same, positive, outgoing person," said campaign manager Arnold Pinkney.

Jackson's advisers were bitterly divided. A few wanted him to admit that he'd blundered, that he'd said something stupid in an unguarded moment but meant no harm. Get it behind us, they had argued, then go on. Others were telling him the opposite: to stonewall, to stand firm against the critics. Deputy campaign manager Preston Love appeared so upset that some staff members felt that he would quit if Jackson apologized, and Jackson's wife, Jacqueline, was so adamant that he not apologize that she packed her bags and flew immediately to New Hampshire to argue her case in person.

After flying from Chicago to Manchester on the morning of Feb. 26, Jackson was met by aide Frank Watkins, who convinced him that the political damage was enormous. At the airport, Jackson decided to apologize. "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line," he told Watkins. "I'll do it tonight."

That afternoon he walked into the temple to confess to a crowd of national Jewish leaders assembled there. His message was conciliatory, but his voice was cold.

"In private talks we sometimes let our guard down and we become thoughtless," Jackson said grimly. "It was not in a spirit of meanness, an off-color remark having no bearing on religion or politics. . . . However innocent and unintended, it was wrong." Adding that he was shocked "that something so small has become so large that it threatens the fabric of relations that have been long in the making and must be protected," he asked for forgiveness. He also denied that the words proved he was an anti-Semite: "I categorically deny allegations that there is anything in my personal attitude or my public career, behavior, or record that lends itself to that interpretation. In fact, the record is the exact opposite."

Some Jewish leaders were willing to accept Jackson's apology. They had found his remarks offensive, but they had also been disturbed by the severity of the attacks on him. After all, they confided, Jesse Jackson isn't the only one using ethnic terms. But some would not forgive; they scoffed at the apology in the temple--an apology made "belatedly" that "doesn't acknowledge the gravity of his language," said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

"He could light candles every Friday night and grow side curls, and it still wouldn't matter. He's a whore," Nathan Perlmutter, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, almost hissed.

Months later, Jackson compared his relationship with his Jewish critics to a marriage of 20 years in which one partner uses one episode as a reason to dissolve the partnership. "Marriages aren't like that," Jackson argued. "It's a series of compromises, of ups and downs. You don't just find one 'gotcha' after 20 years--and end it. A marriage is a whole series of 'gotcha' this and 'gotcha' thats, a whole 20 years of 'gotchas.' "

"NON-INSULTING, COLLOQUIAL language," Jackson called it later, and some no doubt would intend it that way. But Jackson was dangerously wrong if he thought it was only that. "Hymie" has an edge to it, especially for those who lived with a heritage of persecution and for whom buzzwords have often been a prelude to menace.

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