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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | BIOGRAPHY

JESSE The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson By Marshall Frady Random House: 552 pp., $27.50

December 29, 1996|ROBERT SHERRILL

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.

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