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BLACK OR WHITE: The Politics of Race : JESSE: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, By Marshall Frady (Random House: $27.50; 552 pp.) : WALLACE, By Marshall Frady (Random House: $15; 272 pp.)

June 23, 1996|Robert Sherrill | Robert Sherrill wrote "Gothic Politics in the Deep South" and is on the staff of The Nation

Aside from being superior entertainment, Marshall Frady's new biography of Jesse Jackson, perhaps our era's most spellbinding political preacher, and his freshly updated biography of George Wallace, our era's most masterful race demagogue, are hugely useful in the way they lay out for our inspection the split personality of this nation.

Contempt for blacks, the federal government, "elitist" bureaucrats, and "pointy-headed intellectuals" were the intoxicating bootleg products that came out of Wallace's still. The elixirs peddled by Jackson were racial cooperation (his "Rainbow Coalition") and economic hope ("Keep hope alive!").

In the United States, those themes are hardly exceptional. But through the magic of their personalities, Wallace and Jackson have made the themes seem fresh. As rabble-rousers they set a new standard in political campaigns. And it was specifically the rabble they wanted to rouse. Wallace, in his malevolent assault on the political system, considered himself "the embodiment of the will and . . . discontents of the people in the roadside diners and all-night chili cafes, the cabdrivers and waitresses and plant workers." Jackson, with trademark alliteration, boasted that his constituency was "the desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected and the despised."

Given their backgrounds when they entered national politics, their success has to be considered phenomenal. As governor of Alabama, Wallace did not have an exactly elegant reputation. He campaigned as a race baiter and his administrations had their share of graft and kickbacks. Jackson, a civil rights leader and activist, had lengthy experience with the internal bickering of movement politics, and he had spent years negotiating with Chicago politicians and businessmen to get economic help for blacks. But he had never run for political office before seeking the presidency. Both Wallace and Jackson were, in a sense, primitives--and they electrified the five presidential campaigns in which they were contestants.

Their influence has been considerable. Jackson was a veritable sorcerer in getting millions of blacks to register to vote and then turn out on election day. According to Frady, politicians like David Dinkins, New York City's first black mayor, and Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder, the first elected black governor in the nation's history, "were largely beneficiaries of Jackson's own national campaigns and the vast black voter registrations he had galvanized." Where other civil rights leaders had mainly sought connections with the affluent white community, Jackson pioneered in seeking a link between blacks and the white working class.

Yet these may not be his most important contributions. As Frady writes, Jackson "has been regularly belabored over the years for the absence of any demonstrable, substantive results of his ministry. But in the end, he operates in the interior regions of the heart, where pride and hope happen, which makes any sequence of effect between his efforts and their consequences virtually impossible to trace, to statistically measure and quantify. . . ."

As for Wallace, his hardball pseudo-Populism had been imitated to some degree, at some point in their careers, by most presidents and would-be presidents. He was governor of one of the poorest and most backward states when, almost casually and with only $800 in the kitty to start with, he entered Wisconsin's 1964 Democratic presidential primary as a candidate against President Lyndon B. Johnson. Already known for his racist rhetoric (at his swearing in as governor that year, Wallace caught the nation's attention with his promise of "Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!") he was expected to win no more than 5% of the Wisconsin vote. He won a stunning 35%.

Wallace once told a reporter: "Let 'em call me a racist. It don't make any difference. Whole heap of folks in this country feel the same way I do." Indeed they did. Running as a third-party candidate in the presidential election four years later, he won 10 million votes, or 14% of the total. And that was just a warm-up for the 1972 presidential campaign, which Wallace swept into like a tornado, rolling over 11 Democratic primary opponents with a 43% plurality in Florida. A lot of Yankees loved him, too; in Michigan, he got twice as many votes as George McGovern. He won the Maryland primary, but it was there that Arthur Bremer, a would-be assassin, put four bullets in Wallace, turning him into a paraplegic and for all purposes ending his national political career.

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