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Jackson: Not Prime Time but Still a Player

Leadership: Insiders say his mellower persona reflects changed political realities and a desire to turn the spotlight over to his congressman son.


CHICAGO — Democratic Party leaders were remarkably relaxed when the Rev. Jesse Jackson ascended the convention podium Tuesday night, even though they knew his muscular oratory would be directed in part at the welfare reform legislation just signed into law by President Clinton.

For the first time in more than a decade, Jackson's remarks were not viewed as a potential threat to party unity. There were none of the tense, backstage negotiations that have preceded Jackson's appearances at the last three Democratic conventions. Democrats were no longer asking themselves: "What does Jesse want?"

"We're not afraid of having somebody stand at the podium and express a different view," declared party chairman and Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, referring to Jackson. Dodd insisted that Jackson was not even required to clear his speech with convention organizers.

Although Clinton lately has made political compromises with the Republicans that could harm many of the people that make up Jackson's constituency, the civil rights leader and erstwhile presidential contender has assumed what once would have been viewed as a downright docile role in the party.

In his speech, Jackson plainly expressed his differences with Clinton.

"Last week," he said, "over the objections of many Democratic Party leaders, and the opposition of millions of Americans, Franklin Roosevelt's six-decade guarantee of support for women and children was abandoned. On this issue, many of us differ with the president."

At the same time, he pledged to strongly support Clinton's reelection.

"President Clinton has been our first line of defense against the Newt Gingrich contract [with America]; America's right-wing assault on elderly, our students and our civil rights," he said. "We must maintain with integrity the first lines of defense as they attack the integrity of the first lady. . . . We must reelect the president and take back the Congress and stop the right-wing train in its track."

It was a homecoming of sorts for Jackson, who made his reputation as leader of Chicago's Operation Push before moving onto a national stage by seeking the presidency. And the audience cheered enthusiastically, even though his speech was, at times, stilted and rambling, especially compared to Jackson at his most eloquent.

Jackson, who sought the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988 and threatened to challenge Clinton for the nomination in 1992, in the past laid down certain demands for his support of the Democratic ticket--a prime-time speaking spot on the convention schedule, increased convention access for his supporters or a new program to register black voters.

According to party insiders, his new attitude reflects both a change in Jackson himself as well as the altered political circumstances in which Republicans now control the Congress and the public has become increasingly disenchanted with the government's social welfare programs.

Personally, Jackson, 54, seems to have mellowed and his ambition has cooled. Instead of promoting his own political career, friends say, his is motivated by a strong desire to nurture the emerging star of his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.).

The younger Jackson introduced his father to the convention crowd.

In his speech, Jackson recalled that his son was born just a few days after "Bloody Sunday" in 1965--a violent clash between police and civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Ala. And he marveled at the progress that has been made in racial relations since then, which has allowed his offspring to be elected to the House of Representatives.

In Jackson's eyes, friends say, his son is a potential presidential candidate.

This change in Jackson was clearly apparent during a network television interview Monday. Instead of answering questions himself, Jackson frequently deferred to his son, who insisted that both he and his father were satisfied with the pledges that Clinton made in the 1996 platform to seek improvements in the welfare reform law.

Jackson explains his new posture as a matter of simple political pragmatism.

"It is in our interest to expand the convention and not to split," Jackson said at a news conference before his speech. "There is a struggle for the soul of the party, but at least it has a soul."

He added that the "stakes are higher than just the White House," observing that a GOP victory in November would leave all three branches of government controlled by GOP conservatives.

Jackson was not even upset that party leaders had scheduled him to appear Tuesday slightly before prime time--at 7:15 p.m. CDT. "It's prime time whenever I speak," he quipped. "I will not measure what I do by that definition of prime time."

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