Imagine the Democratic convention hall in Atlanta when Jesse Jackson arrives in July with 1,000 delegates, more than any other candidate, but still far short of the number necessary for the nomination. In confusion, despair and exhilaration the maneuvering begins. But no deal is likely to be made until the candidates themselves are heard.
So on the night before the first balloting, Jackson will step to the podium to persuade the convention that he should be its nominee. "I have played by your rules," he will tell us. "I spoke from the heart. I went to the people and I am their choice. Now I must be your choice."
Down on the floor of the convention I will be listening, stirred by his eloquence. Can he be denied? Can we reject this remarkable man, successor to Martin Luther King Jr., living symbol of a civil-rights movement that remains one of our proudest national achievements? How can we pass him over for a second-place finisher? Could we resolve the dilemma by drafting the governor of New York?
My thoughts will drift back to the first time I encountered Jackson, 20 years ago in the muddy, hate-filled streets of Selma, Ala. I will wonder at the motives of those who would deny him the nomination, calculate that it will be difficult to win with him heading the ticket and impossible to win without his support. I will remind myself that the Democratic Party can be stronger by risking defeat on a matter of principle (just as we once did with an unelectable Roman Catholic named Al Smith).
Up on the podium, the candidate is now closing with a passionate plea for working people, for the young, for the victims of injustice, for all those who have been leftbehind in the Reagan years. Then, quietly, he reminds us of the redemptive power of politics. At last, he will say, we have a chance to redeem 200 years of racial division, to fulfill the promise of the Constitution, to bring Americans together and unleash their energies in a new era of brotherhood and progress.
I will recall that I have heard these words before--it was on the night of the New Hampshire primary when he came across town to talk with me, one on one. It was powerful then and it will be powerful at the convention. And that is the dilemma facing the Democratic Party. Jackson has an exciting message--his story is the stuff of the American dream and we are all, friend and foe, having a hard time separating the symbols and the individual.
But let's come back to the present. The convention is still a long way off. There are more primaries to come and from now on, the votes are for real, representing a choice between two front-runners.
The important thing now is to assess not Jackson the symbol, not Jackson the black leader, but Jackson the man and candidate. Even that is hard to do, for both Jackson's strengths and weaknesses, his virtues and defects are larger than political life. In an age of homogenized candidates who peddle bland positions and evoke little emotion, Jackson is the exception.
--The economy. Jackson advocates government assistance based on need and he is the only candidate with the courage to call for tax increases as part of the deficit solution. His populist cries against corporate mergers and overseas investment may be somewhat off the mark, but corporate social responsibility to workers and the larger society is an important issue that would not even be on the agenda if it weren't for his candidacy.
--Foreign policy. Jackson, virtually alone among the candidates, expresses a passionate concern for the future of Third World countries, an area tragically ignored by the Reagan Administration. If he is a bit too enthusiastic about Fidel Castro, his insistence that Third World turmoil is rooted in economic and political injustice is, nonetheless, a vast improvement on the world views of Oliver North, Elliot Abrams and George Bush.
--The Middle East. His much publicized dalliance with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat raises serious questions about a man who would be President. On the other hand, he is the only candidate who is willing to talk publicly about the Palestinian uprising and of Israel's rejection of "land for peace," which is the bedrock American diplomacy in the Middle East.
In the end, Jackson's candidacy is an opportunity for the Democratic Party and for America. It is a chance for Democrats to show that, even in a conservative and spiritless political age, we are willing to continue as the party of change and progress. His candidacy redeems the American Dream, it tells every school child that he or she really can aspire to be President.
Our task for the remainder of the primary season is to accord Jesse Jackson serious treatment as a presidential candidate, hearing and challenging his views, and trusting in the judgment of those Democrats who are willing to go to the polls and determine our future. If we do that, the Democratic Party will write a bright new chapter in American history--win or lose.