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Jesse Jackson, Echoing Huey Long, Speaks Loudest to the Discontented

<i> John Maginnis, publisher of Gris Gris magazine, is the author of "The Last Hayride," an examination of Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edward's 1983 campaign. </i>

Soon after John Sasso rejoined Michael S. Dukakis’ sputtering presidential campaign, Jesse Jackson was called in from the sidelines. Put on hold since the Democratic Convention and clearly displeased about it, Jackson, according to Dukakis spokesmen, will now take a more active role in strategy and campaigning. He uses a plane provided by the campaign, has senior advisers well-positioned in the Dukakis staff and is slated to record television and radio spots.

In short order, Jackson blasted George Bush with the rhetoric he used on Democratic rivals in the primaries. Addressing the National Baptist Convention in Dallas, Jackson gave Dukakis a strong endorsement along with a stronger backhand to the GOP: “Bush sees the country from the penthouse down. Bush does not care and Quayle does not understand. Dukakis cares and understands.”

Dukakis’ use of Jackson as a surrogate is not without risk: The cautious Dukakis knows Jackson can do him more harm than good in some states. This is not new to Democratic campaigns--nothing can so inspire or frighten the masses as an uncompromising populist message delivered with the passion inherent in it.

It was the problem Franklin D. Roosevelt faced 56 years ago: What to do with the party’s most dynamic speaker and most dangerous ally, Huey Long?

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Both Long and Jackson evoked a similar unease in the party Establishment. Although Jackson denied it, the Dukakis campaign reportedly gave him a list of states to stay out of. In 1932, whole regions were blocked off to the fiery Louisiana senator. Yet when used strategically, Long proved a potent weapon. According to T. Harry Williams’ biography “Huey Long,” the Louisiana senator was dispatched to a speaking tour of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, where he so wowed the staid but desperate farmers that party chairmen wired headquarters: “If you have a doubtful state, send Huey Long to it.”

Seeking hope and some entertainment, Midwesterners turned out in massive numbers to see and hear this wild-man senator whose redistribution-of-wealth plan made perfect sense to them.

Folks in the Midwest had not seen anything like Long, and haven’t since--until Jackson rolled through farm country in 1988, attracting huge crowds of the curious and the newly desperate to hear an updated version of the populist dream.

Back in Louisiana, Long’s roguish appeal and hustling showmanship live on in Edwin W. Edwards and Jimmy Swaggart. But on the national scene, Long’s political heir--in style and substance--is Jackson.

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The similarities are more than coincidental: Brash outsiders, consistently underestimated, first Long, then Jackson, broadened their bases as the economy grew more uncertain. No other candidate has so successfully attracted support and influenced the party--while pushing a strong populist message viewed by some as half-baked and dangerous. Both won respect if not complete acceptance within the party, without dimming their visions or sidetracking their goals. Long was planning his first presidential campaign for 1936--a direct challenge to Roosevelt--when he was assassinated in 1935. Jackson, though never elected to office, has eclipsed Long’s national appeal and may go further--depending on where the economy and the country turn next.

Other populists have shared their message and their vision, but none matched their rhetoric. This has allowed Jackson, like Long in his day, to wage a class struggle against the party’s tentative economic orthodoxy.

Jackson has described his followers as “the damned, the disinherited and the despised” and leads them in the recitation of “I am somebody.” Long preached his theme of “Every man a king” to people he called “the downtrodden, the helpless, the bleeding, the hungry and the distressed.”

While the government safety net, if frayed, eases some of today’s economic suffering, the gap between rich and poor is growing. As it does, Jackson’s appeal broadens. His remedy, compared to Long’s, is conservative. His call for increased spending on health care, education and housing funded by taxes and defense cuts is only a modest step beyond Hubert H. Humphrey--though a perilous leap across the Gulf of Reaganomics. Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program--proposing a guaranteed homestead and income to all and a limit on personal fortunes to $10 million--is still radical a half-century later, long after the original tenets of the New Deal have been taken for granted.

Their targets, however, have not changed in 50 years. To Jackson, the enemy is “financial barracudas,” who “merge companies, purge workers and submerge the economy” and use “slave labor abroad” to undermine “organized labor at home.”

Long reversed the slavery image: “We have swapped a tyrant 3,000 miles away for a handful of financial, slaveholding overlords.”

Jackson talks of the same systematic exploitation that Long did: “There’s something wrong when corporate owners make exorbitant profits while workers lose their jobs, and then get golden parachutes and land in tall grass while workers are put on skateboards without ball bearings.”

Long was as blunt in laying the blame: “Not a single dime of concentrated, bloated, pompous wealth amassed in the hands of a few people has been raked down to relieve the masses.”

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Jackson, more than Long, has tried to diffuse distrust toward himself and his policies while making his case. In a campaign speech he said, “If the government does not assume a responsible position and a responsibility for all of the American people, and corporate America will not, then the people will suffer in total rejection.”

Huey did not care whom he alarmed in predicting consequences more dire: “Unless we provide for a redistribution of wealth in this country, the country is doomed; there is going to be no country left here very long.”

Jackson makes a pragmatic pitch for economic justice: “Better day care and health care on the front side of life, than jail care and welfare on the back side.” As for the culprits: “These corporate outlaws and rapists must be confronted and their behavior rehabilitated and redirected.” Long’s justice was swifter, more terrible: “I’ll pull them down to frying size . . . . I’ll cut their nails and file their teeth and let them live.”

Now that Jackson is joining the fray, the GOP will be more likely to take him on than his Democratic rivals were. He got off easy in 1984 because his critics feared being labeled as racists. In 1988, his perceived kingmaker status lent him immunity.

Long’s immunity was stinging invective. An observer called it, “bitter, merciless, inflaming.”

Jackson’s danger for the Dukakis campaign may come in heated moments, in some ill-advised off-the-cuff remark. But throughout the 1988 race, Jackson sought to avoid the polarizing actions that marked his 1984 effort--there was no hint of Louis Farrakhan or a “Hymietown” remark. This time, Jackson has been more cautious and positive as he steers toward the party’s mainstream.

The team-playing Jackson is winning more acceptance and respect than Long ever enjoyed in the party. But will respect spoil Jackson? In this campaign and beyond, his message could be compromised and diffused as his influence and acceptance grows.

That was no problem for Long, who quickly fell out with Roosevelt when the New Deal did not move farther to the left.

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Jackson, too, is a bad-times candidate whose political future depends on a worsening economy drawing more converts to the cause. Jackson could be in a position similar to Long’s if Dukakis wins and the economy plunges into recession. Or if Bush wins and the economy submerges, Jackson, the last liberal left standing, is well-placed should the country go looking for new answers.


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