The Jesse Hustle

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On "Meet the Press," Tim Russert asked Dick Gephardt three or four times whether he considered that George W. Bush would be "the legitimate President."

Each time, Gephardt demurred. Bush, he said, would "be the President."

But not, Gephardt implied, the legitimate one.

Self-designated hitter

I started thinking about the legitimacy of Jesse Jackson. A few minutes before Gephardt, Jackson was Russert's guest on "Meet the Press." Jackson has become unelected pontifex maximus of African America. He makes the rounds of the media, dispensing what is presumed to be the outrage of all blacks at what is presumed to be their disenfranchisement. He was the leadoff voice in an op-ed symposium in the Sunday New York Times on the question, "Can Bush Mend His Party's Rift With Black America?"

George W. Bush thought enough of the necessity for what Tom Wolfe called "steam control" to talk to Jackson on the phone last week and to arrange a meeting with him. Whence comes Jackson's legitimacy, his presumed authority to speak for black America? Is it real? Or done with media mirrors?

Demons of Memphis

A strange moment on "Meet the Press": Off-camera in the studio, a lightbulb apparently exploded —a loud, sharp noise. Jesse Jackson thought it was a gunshot. For an instant he looked wildly to his right, eyes questioning.

"Sorry," said Russert, "it was a lightbulb."

Jackson relaxed.

I thought of a morning about 25 years ago in a corridor of Washington's Willard Hotel. I had an appointment to interview Jackson in his hotel room at eleven. As I walked down the hotel corridor, I saw Jackson walking in front of me, and I called out, "Reverend Jackson?"

He flinched and wheeled on me with the same look in his eye that he had when the lightbulb exploded. He thought for an instant that I was his assassin, his James Earl Ray. A natural reflex for someone who was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel that day in Memphis in 1968.

Talking the talk

I became a student of Jackson, especially of his oratorical style, his cadences. I heard him speak in every setting from ghetto high schools in Washington and New York ("My mind is a pearl/ I can do anything/ In the worl'.") to sleek 46th-floor dining rooms of the TIME-LIFE Building, where he met with editors and writers preparing cover stories about him. Jackson has many speaking voices — from hard street (almost incomprehensible to the white ear) to a high, southern-preacherly eloquence (school of Martin Luther King Jr.) to the most sophisticated corporate mellowspeak, as smooth and fancy as Harvard. He speaks these various styles of English with virtuosity — a repertoire that ranges from unlettered field hand to articulate overlord.

Lately Jackson chooses to speak in a rude staccato with the consonants rubbed off, sometimes a little hard to understand ("Stay out duh Bushes! Stay out duh Bushes!" he hilariously warned the Democratic convention) — an emphasis that he adopts for the sake of a downmarket authenticity that he calculates will give him most leverage in his dealings with white political power.

Equal opportunist

Does Jackson enjoy legitimacy as the pre-eminent black American leader? Why? Says who? The white American media — somewhat lazily, I would say — seem to accept him as such.

But whites do not appoint black leaders. If they did, Colin Powell or some other outstanding African American would have the title. Jesse Jackson — a shameless hypemeister, a genius of self-promotion with a talent for survival and a gift for grifting silly old whitey — stays in business because of a complex racial physics dictating that his viability as a black spokesman/agitator stands in direct proportion to the extent he succeeds in infuriating white folks and, from time to time, shaking them down. He infuriates. He reconciles. The check comes forward in its smiling envelope.

It may be that more blacks than whites regard Jackson as a threadbare old charlatan. (One may remember that Martin Luther King Jr. at the time of his death had come to be regarded somewhat dismissively in the black community; they called him, satirically, "De Lawd.")

But Jackson stays relevant on both sides of the racial divide by means of showmanship and what might be called amphibious opportunism. He intrudes himself into every crisis and photo op with the aggressive agility of a pro football lineman; he mediates, he bloviates, he aggrandizes himself, and occasionally, I suppose, he performs a useful function. That is the legitimacy of his hustle.