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Jackson: a Team Player or a Troubles-Maker?

THE RUNNING ARGUMENTS: A Continuing Series Surveying the Presidential Campaign and Candidates.

July 31, 1988|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart K. Spencer was Ronald Reagan's senior campaign adviser in 1980 and 1984

WASHINGTON — The Democratic troika is out of the gate and all over the map--literally and philosophically. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas--the named "ticket"--and Jesse Jackson, the big man who is still there a week after the Democratic Convention.

Once the question was, "What does Jesse want?" The new questions are, "What did Jesse get?" and "Was it enough for him?"

Jackson is a polarizing personality. There are many who love him, others who dislike him and the mass in the middle who like the show but will pass on the product. The distance from his birthplace to Atlanta (site of the 1988 convention) is only about 100 miles, but Jackson took the scenic route by way of Memphis, Chicago and Damascus, Syria--and in that journey grew into a legend. Only 46 years old, he will be around for a good while, and can only get better at politics.

That minuet on the Atlanta podium, carefully choreographed by Dukakis' handlers the last night of the convention was cute, perhaps too cute. No handclasps held aloft or high-fives with Jackson. Mass family groupings neatly precluded a photograph of the three men--but Jackson was there, and his presence was, and will continue to be, felt.

Jackson has been given a big job--officially heading up the effort to register voters, unofficially providing the campaign's soul and spirit. He is the motivator. The Dukakis-Bentsen campaign hopes Jackson will do the job well--"register for me, vote for them." They have given him financing and a plane which, with his considerable skills, should accomplish much. But will it be enough to fill his time?

It's exactly 100 days from now until the election, and in politics, that's an eternity. Jackson still has Secret Service protection--a wise choice by the Treasury Department, since he gets an awful lot of threats. But his media coverage has thinned out, and for Jackson, that approaches political non-personhood, a position nobody would enjoy after the media high of the last 15 months. Remember, Jackson's personality and talents are better fitted to being a locomotive than a caboose.

As this is written, there are reports that Jackson and/or intermediaries have approached Iranian diplomats at the United Nations, seeking talks to get the American hostages in Beirut freed. A noble goal, but also a shot at the limelight for Jackson--and this is only a week after the Democratic Convention. Is he lonely for attention so soon?

I am certain such efforts do not have the blessing of the Dukakis-Bentsen campaign hierarchy--they probably get chills at the prospect of an unfavorable reaction reflecting on them. Yet, this is what can happen when you team an independent thoroughbred used to running his own show with the workmanlike pair that makes up the Democratic ticket. Troikas only work if the center horse is the strong leader, and the other two horses act accordingly.

The three-man style of campaign leaves itself open to this kind of snafu. A presidential aspirant knows, or should know, his role and the veep candidate knows his backup role, but the third person in the deal--because it is new and unprecedented--has trouble defining a role and more trouble having it defined for him by his "partners." There are no clear lines of command here, and no one should have believed that Jackson could be fitted into one of Dukakis' little boxes on an organization chart.

For better or for worse, Jackson seems to have taken his powerful statement, "Be Somebody," to heart. Out of compassion and pride, he believes he can make a difference in peoples' lives--be it hostages in Lebanon, the hurting in Watts or little people everywhere. He also employs exceptional public-relations skills to turn his thoughts into a message, and acts on his thoughts. He will find the role of "just registering voters" stifling in a world where there is so much wrong to see and so much good to do.

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