WASHINGTON -- Did you catch that improbable interview on CNN the other day? With the utmost solemnity, CNN's Bernard Shaw was soliciting the Rev. Jesse Jackson's current views on world politics, particularly international terrorism and the Future of the Human Race. I think that was it. It was all very dramatic. No, the Rev was not speaking in his trademark jingles or wearing a safari shirt. His growing corpulence was swaddled in a dark pinstriped suit, somewhat Churchillian, and he spoke in Solomonic cadences. I cannot tell you what he said, for this amazing scene sent my mind to wandering until I came upon a moment of illumination. Now I think I understand why the liberals transform dunderheads into authorities. It is a matter of simple justice.
As those of us who have followed the Rev's career for over 30 years know, his specialty has been race relations. Most recently, he has engaged in controversy with the state of Mississippi over the violent death of a young black man. Autopsies indicated a suicide; the Rev argues that the death was a racist lynching. Earlier, last fall to be specific, he mustered 2,000 marchers to oppose the Decatur, Ill., school board's suspension of seven black students for fighting at a high school football game. The school board called it hooliganism; the Rev again argued racism, pronouncing the disciplinarian action as being "fundamentally a national issue." No racism was found.
In 1995 the Rev was the leading voice in claiming that a series of fires in black churches was racially motivated. He called it "a cultural conspiracy." The fires were unrelated, some being arson, some being accidents. In each of these controversies the Rev blundered. Blunders have been the building blocks of his career.
Nonetheless, increasingly the Rev's prestige spreads. The range of issues he is asked to comment on expands apace with his erroneous pronouncements. He is asked to address national conventions, most recently the Democratic National Convention. He receives prestigious awards -- just last month a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian award. And, of course, television asks his views -- geopolitics today, brain surgery tomorrow.
During the CNN interview I figured it out. As I watched the Rev imperturbably mumbling his answers to Shaw (The Rev does, in fact, mumble. Though recognized as an orator of stupendous gifts, he frequently lapses into the garbled elocutions and syntactical freaks that bejewel the utterances of that other great orator, Teddy Kennedy, who at least has a respectable alibi, the bottle), it occurred to me that it is only fair that liberals accord him the status of wise man. To penalize him for his failed prophecies and erroneous pronouncements would be to penalize him for precisely those pratfalls that have attracted the liberals' attention and admiration. As I say, it is a matter of simple justice.
Reflect back. In 1980, the Rev traveled to Atlanta where black boys were being molested and murdered, by no one knew whom. There he announced "it is open season on black people." He blamed Atlanta's police department, identifying it as an outpost of the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote in Time magazine that "black life is not and has never been ... seen in the same manner as when whites are killed. I regard this attitude as a cultural conspiracy to kill black people ... the American culture is anti-black." After all the hullabaloo, a black sex pervert was convicted of killing the 23 boys. In 1988, Jackson involved himself in Tawana Brawley's rape charge, calling it "part of a larger and growing case of racial antagonism." The rape was a hoax. Then came the 1995 church burnings. Some were the work of black arsonists. Out of almost 50 alleged burnings, only three or four were hate crimes.
The young toughs in Decatur were simply young toughs. No evidence of racial persecution has been discovered. The recent death in Mississippi appeared to be a suicide. The Rev without any evidence claimed -- and apparently still claims -- to have uncovered a lynching. He claimed the suicide's throat was slashed. Photographs showed that was impossible. Two autopsies asserted death by suicide. The Rev proceeded with a protest march. The full investigation by all duly charged authorities disclosed only a suicide. The Rev passed on to the ceremony at the White House where he received his Presidential Medal, then to the Democratic National Convention. Now he is on the campaign trails with Vice President Al Gore. His range of expertise widens. No one can stop him.
To return to my initial insight: Where would this amazing fellow be had he taken a pass on Atlanta, Tawana Brawley, the church burnings, the Decatur hooligans, the Mississippi suicide? What if he had contented himself through all these years with saying only sensible things? So whose fault is it that such a Vesuvius of error and sham is an acknowledged national authority figure? Jesse's, or those who would not hold him accountable for his error and fraud? Of course, how could they? They encouraged him.