Will Jesse Run?

Anyone who expected the 1988 American presidential election to be refreshing for the high level of its political debate will have found the primaries ominously disturbing. Such was the level of tedious cant from the candidates that it was almost a relief to turn to the bigoted ravings of Pat Robertson, whose manic religion at least offered something other than endless grins flashing through exhausted platitudes.

Another candidate who tried to be different was Jesse Jackson, who gathered an unexpected success based largely on a mould-breaking appeal to bring a single-minded resolve to tackling the problems of poverty, housing, health, racism and the rest. Jackson has a past which is dubious enough to cast strong doubts on the endurance of his pledges. His place as an aide of the late Martin Luther King was not based on his entirely selfless devotion to the work of racial integration. His claim to have cradled the dying civil rights leader through the last moments of his life were not echoed by other witnesses of the assassination. There is some question about whose blood it was and how it got on the shirt which Jackson wore when he appeared in public after the killing.

Whatever the truth, it has not held Jackson back in his ambition to be the first black president of the United States. His success in the primaries was such as to have the pros in the Democratic Party fussing about the awful consequences of their convention foisting on them a candidate who. because of his colour, would be unlikely to be elected. Of course the pros were equally worried in 1960. about the prospects of electing a catholic to the White House, except that the Kennedy machine rolled on its ruthless way to show them how wrong they were.

It is votes that worry the pros – not the fact that Jackson makes a blatantly cynical appeal to the people whose despair and frustration at American capitalism in 1988 makes them vulnerable to any charismatic trickster. Nothing is easier in politics and nothing happens more often – than mouthing seductive promises that a candidate has the ability to cure social ailments which has eluded everyone and every administration in the past.

That is why, when a president takes the oath, we hear a speech full of assurances about a new age, a new departure from outmoded ways of tackling problems, a new zeal to build a better world. That kind of speech was made by Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan . . . In each case it was followed by the inevitable disillusionment and an equally inevitable despair until a new candidate came along, to make the same promises, the same speech.

So if the possibly unelectable Jackson is nominated and then elected, the American people will be on course for an experience they have had many times before. After the hysteria of the inauguration the reality will set in – that capitalism takes no account of politicians’ promises.


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