The Democrats An Indelicate Balance

In picking Bentsen, Dukakis looked right and needlessly blindsided Jackson

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In the next few days, Jackson, the maestro of mixed signals, seemed to lurch between wrath and reconciliation. Bentsen, he said, "represents the Establishment. I represent enthusiasm and energy." In a speech to the N.A.A.C.P. annual convention in Washington, a revved-up Jackson brought the audience to its feet when he cried, "One thing that I know. I may or I may not be on the ticket, but I am qualified. Qualified! Qualified!"

Dukakis went to the N.A.A.C.P. convention, Bentsen in tow, the day after Jackson's defiant speech. Dukakis' uninspiring talk, praising his own record on minority hiring in Massachusetts and barely acknowledging Jackson, did not go down well. "I would not say to Governor Dukakis' people," noted N.A.A.C.P. Leader Benjamin Hooks, "to sit there and think the black vote is in your party."

Dukakis could have spared himself some angst by calling Jackson before 8 a.m. Tuesday. Even allowing for breakfast and a shower, he had the time. Was his failure to do so deliberately designed to show his frustration with what he perceived as Jackson's perpetual grandstanding? More likely it was that the Dukakis inner circle did not want to give the image of kowtowing to Jackson. But Jackson, as Mario Cuomo points out, "is not like the other defeated candidates. Nobody has an influence with 7 million voters like his influence with his people. Why must Dukakis treat him differently? Dukakis doesn't have to -- unless he wants to win. Without Jackson's vote, there is no victory."

On Thursday Jackson began a three-day Chicago-to-Atlanta buscapade recalling the Freedom Rides of the '60s. The trip was a vintage Jackson media event; there were six press buses, the largest media contingent he has had in the campaign. As the buses wound their way south, they picked up delegates and evening-news airtime. Jackson also got some of what he craved: by week's end Brountas had called him to apologize for not informing Dukakis about the early departure for the airport. Jackson spoke with Dukakis, and they talked several times over the next few days in an effort to make peace. Estrich and Ron Brown, Jackson's savvy convention manager, who are old friends, planned a series of meetings in Atlanta. Said Brown: "The positive thing is that there's a lot of communication now."

What they need to settle on is a solution that will satisfy Jackson. He maintains that he wants precisely what he has wanted all along -- a place at the table, a chance to be truly involved in shaping a new Administration, the same right to be consulted that white leaders with far less of a constituency are accorded.

Whether by oversight or design, the cost of the late call proved far greater than any possible anticipated benefit. It stirred up Jackson and his forces at a time when Dukakis should be preparing to preside over a Democratic love feast in Atlanta. It also seemed to undermine Dukakis' reputation for efficiency and suggest that before the campaign is over, he may have a rendezvous with his own arrogance. If selecting Bentsen, as Dukakis said, is the "first presidential act I will ever do," he had better quickly learn a more presidential way to handle such delicate tasks.

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