The End Of The Rainbow

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Set aside for a moment the strutting hypocrisy revealed by Jesse Jackson's confession last week that in 1998, at the very moment he was providing pastoral counseling to the White House's resident adulterer, he was carrying on an extramarital affair of his own, with a subordinate who later gave birth to his child. Focus instead on his stupidity: How could the nation's premier civil rights leader have been so reckless? Of course, that's the same question everybody was asking about Bill Clinton in 1998. But at least Clinton isn't a minister.

Judging from the way in which his fellow civil rights leaders are rallying to his defense, most African Americans will probably pardon Jackson for this sin, because we are an extremely forgiving people. Just ask Clinton, Marion Barry, Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson and a host of other bad actors who have been welcomed back into the fold. But if we let Jackson back into a position of leadership after he completes his promised sabbatical from public life, we're out of our minds.

If there's one thing this sordid episode proves, it's that Jackson believes black folks will tolerate almost any behavior from their leaders. But this time he's gone too far. Impregnating Karin Stanford--a former political-science professor who at the time of the affair was head of the Washington office of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition--wasn't a minor ethical lapse. It's hard to think of any act more certain to knock Jackson, who was a 56-year-old father of five when the baby was conceived, off the moral high horse from which he has preached to inner-city youngsters about the threats posed by aids, drugs and unwed pregnancy. It's time to give him another gold Rolex, thank him for his service and send him out to pasture.

As is usually the case when His Grandiloquence gets into trouble, Jackson has a scapegoat. According to friends, he privately accuses the same vast right-wing conspiracy that tried to destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton of orchestrating a campaign to discredit him because he led protests against the alleged voting-rights abuses in Florida. So far, he has offered no evidence that the charge is true. But from Jackson's standpoint, the timing of last week's bombshell--right after the holiday named for his hero, Martin Luther King Jr.--could not have been worse.

For the past few years, he has been stumbling from one pseudo crusade to another, likening every minor crisis--the expulsion of six roughnecks from a Decatur, Ill., high school; the supposed lynching of a Mississippi youth, which turned out to be a suicide--to the glorious civil rights battleground of Selma, Ala. Since last fall, he has been tussling with his former protege, Al Sharpton, who annoyed Jackson by launching a boycott of Burger King, which has long been one of Jackson's corporate allies. Not until last year's presidential campaign, when Jackson worked his heart out to help produce the huge black turnout that nearly put Al Gore in the White House, did he regain some of his old magic.

The real surprise is that it took until now for the National Enquirer to break its story, given the rumors going around even before Ashley Stanford was born 20 months ago. Everybody who was anybody in black political circles had heard reports of a scene that could have come straight out of a Terry McMillan novel: it was said that Jackie, Jackson's wife of 38 years, had barged into his office and upbraided Stanford for getting pregnant in order to "trap" her husband. Or that Jackson was sleeping at the home of his son, Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., because Jackie had kicked him out of the house. Several news organizations, including TIME, looked into the matter but declined to publish the story because Stanford denied that Jackson was the father. But Stanford also obtained a DNA test to establish his paternity, and Jackson quietly agreed to pay her $35,000 to relocate to Los Angeles and $3,000 in monthly support, according to Jackson's spokesman.

Where I come from, they call that hush money. But just after New Year's Day, Stanford told me last week, a reporter from the Enquirer came to her L.A. home offering "up to a million" in exchange for her story. She says she declined. But as Stanford notes, there are plenty of disgruntled former Rainbow staff members around who "hate Jesse and want to destroy him" so much they didn't need cash as an incentive to spill what they knew. It was Jackson, in his arrogance, who provided them with the squalid tale that may bring him down. To appropriate one of Jackson's slogans, his time has gone.