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Straight From the Heart by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson (Fortress: $18.85; 352 pp.)

August 02, 1987| Ronald Brownstein | Brownstein writes about politics for the National Journal.

This collection of speeches from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is that rare book that would benefit from being condensed onto an audio tape. As a rule, speeches are meant to be heard, not read, and that's particularly true in Jackson's case. Without his rolling rhythms and dramatic cadences, much of Jackson's rhetoric sags.

Nonetheless, for political junkies, this is still a fascinating volume, offering a refreshingly unvarnished tour of Jackson's thoughts on domestic and foreign policy issues over the last decade. All the rough edges that Jackson has since smoothed over still bristle here. The book's arrival stands as a primary piece of evidence that Jackson intends to play a much different role in the 1988 presidential election than he did in the 1984 contest.

Jackson has never been a typical politician. He's never held elected office. In his hands, the words campaign organization are a contradiction in terms. It often sounds as if there is a sermon struggling to escape the bounds of his political speeches.

And so it is somewhat surprising to find Jackson doing something as unabashedly conventional as collecting his speeches in preparation for a White House run. Like his performance in the recent Houston debate between the Democratic candidates, this book suggests that in 1988, Jackson wants to be seen not as the embodiment of black pride, but as a viable contender with his own distinctive vision of the party's future.

The speeches collected here catch Jackson in both postures. As the book demonstrates, Jackson first emerged as a racial spokesman, a broker for black interests. "The issue confronting black people now is beyond freedom," he told the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 1978. "It is equity--our fair share." In one 1980 speech, Jackson called for "reparations" to blacks. Not much ever came of that, but Jackson had more luck with his demand for "reciprocity"--in terms of increased investment and jobs in the black community--from companies that market heavily to blacks.

It was in this narrow broker context that Jackson sought the 1984 Democratic nomination. For Jackson, the race seemed to be nothing more than an extension to the political arena of his demands for economic reciprocity. He began the 1983 Washington Post essay that heralded his candidacy with a straightforward declaration of purpose: "The fundamental relationship between blacks and the Democratic Party must be renegotiated."

Perhaps recognizing the limits of that strategy, once he actually entered the chase, Jackson presented a second side of his personality--offering the purest version of traditional anti-corporate Populism that Democratic audiences had heard in years. Very early in the race, Jackson began to reach some disaffected white liberals with that message. But Jackson's cross-racial appeal was subsumed almost immediately by the controversy over his "Hymietown" remarks. Once that wave swamped his campaign, Jackson appealed almost exclusively to black voters.

Reading these speeches, the "Hymietown" debacle seems almost inevitable. Throughout the early 1980s, Jackson faced intense criticism and pressure from Jewish leaders who recoiled at his sympathy for the Palestinians. Jackson himself saw encrusted, institutionalized racism as the fundamental fact delimiting black life in America, and his remarks during the period seethed with anger. "White male leadership is still essentially morally bankrupt, having neither the will nor the insight to alter or abolish this crisis in American culture," he wrote in 1979.

Caustic and painful as it was, Jackson's 1984 campaign may have served as a catharsis. The black community remains his political base, of course, but this campaign shows no signs of creating the overt racial hostility that his last one did. With the racial shadows receding somewhat, more of the Populist-Jackson apparent in these pages should become visible in the upcoming months.

Yet another Jackson emerges in this book: a stern preacher demanding sacrifice and self-discipline from his followers, particularly young people. This is the side of Jackson least known; in the white political world, he is defined by his broker role, pictured always with a handout, demanding more. But in the black community, he has pushed a message of personal responsibility with unflinching commitment. No public figure in America has spent more time in high schools preaching anti-drug and anti-sex messages than Jackson. No conservative speaks more passionately of the value of work for welfare recipients. He takes a back seat to no one--not even Tipper Gore (author of " Raising P.G. Kids in an X-Rated Society" and wife of Sen. Albert Gore (D., Tenn.))--in his condemnation of "the glorification of mass decadence" on radio and television.

Jackson has never connected these themes to his political appeal. He may be afraid that talking about self-discipline would be perceived as blaming the victims of poverty, or would offer conservatives a justification for attacking social programs. Those are legitimate political concerns. But this book clearly demonstrates that Jackson is most compelling when he is preaching, and his cautionary cultural message is as relevant and immediate for affluent neighborhoods as poor ones. Jackson's bracing eulogy for Don Rogers, the football star who died of a cocaine overdose last year on the eve of his wedding, packs more emotional power than anything else in this book, including his heralded confessional at the 1984 Democratic Convention. Even as a politician, it may be that Jackson is at his best as a preacher.

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