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In His Quest to Be Both Symbol and Affirmation, Jackson May Not Be Able to Settle for Less Than VP

June 15, 1988|JOHN A. WILLIAMS | John A. Williams teaches English and journalism at Rutgers University. His most recent book is the novel "Jacob's Ladder" (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1987).

Former Vice President John Nance Garner, who served two terms under Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-41), is supposed to have said that the job was worth no more than "a bucket of warm spit." John Quincy Adams wrote to his wife in 1793 that the vice presidency was "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived . . . . I can do neither good nor evil, I must be borne away by others and meet the common fate."

So why has Jesse Jackson indicated an interest, apparently growing daily, in the position when even a man as powerful as Lyndon B. Johnson had to gobble humble pie until the day John F. Kennedy was killed? It is clear that Gov. Michael Dukakis does not want to flat-out say "no dice." The Democratic Party bosses are equally reluctant to voice public opposition to Jackson as Dukakis' running mate. However, should Jackson be offered the post and accept, that acceptance would be less symbolic than closer to the fruition of the American dream wherein every boy--even a black boy--can grow up to be President of the United States. (Despite the Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket four years ago, the same inference may not be drawn about girls.) Jackson in fact would then be both symbol and affirmation.

Lately the point has been made that a great showing during the primaries does not automatically gain a candidate the No. 2 spot on the ticket, that other considerations like time-tried and time-worn regional representation are more important. Since both Dukakis and Jackson are Northerners, such a ticket wouldn't work. It didn't for Mondale-Ferraro, where the hope was that the male/female consideration would overcome this ancient mating ritual. But regional representation no doubt will remain a factor for Dukakis and the Democrats to kick around.

Jackson demands consideration because, he says, during the primaries he garnered 7 million votes and owes it to his supporters to carry their aspirations to the convention floor and beyond. He has a point, for he has revitalized elements of the Democratic Party that had given up on the process. (An estimated 84 million eligible voters sat out elections since Jackson first ran in 1984.) The 748 delegate votes that were handed to Dukakis by Albert Gore, Richard Gephardt, Paul Simon, Bruce Babbitt and "undetermined" fall more than 350 short of Jackson's total of 1,105 delegate votes. Jackson's supporters remain a bloc that cannot easily be dismissed without some untoward boomerang effect on the dream, the Democratic Party and the political process. Jackson, it would seem, should be offered an active and visible position within a Dukakis administration and the party.

One scenario orchestrated by the party might have Dukakis offering Jackson the job, with Jackson refusing because he thinks that he could be of more value to the party and his constituency in some other spot. Another scenario would be that Jackson would do a sudden turnabout and withdraw all claims to the post for similar reasons. Of course, the question here is which spot? Jackson is too powerful a personality to be anyone's vice president. The energy booms off the television screen in voice, diction, gesture, glance, movement and--not the least--message. He has been called vain, and he may indeed be; he is, as he was the last time out, labeled a demagogue. But there are few politicians or other public people who are not to some degree both and more. Jackson is quick, often lyrical and, obviously, learns fast. He is witty in the street-smart, slightly biting sense.

He may not have governed, but much of politics is on-the-job training anyway. Those who have governed have not, since the beginning of time, done so without advisers. Jackson could not be any different, and certainly might be better at evaluating such advice. He has a certain, if not expertise, rapport with some of the leaders of the non-Western world whose colored populations vastly outnumber the whites of the West. Few American politicians have been genuinely concerned with that world on a moral basis--shade, yes. Jackson's scheme to tax at higher levels the big corporations (and rich individuals) is as old as the existence of rich and poor people. Anyone lucky enough to have read Gustavus Meyers' classic, now out-of-print, book, "History of the Great American Fortunes," would hardly disagree with Jackson on this issue.

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