Jesse Jacksons Contrition
January 18, 2001
Reverend Jesse Jackson has acknowledged siring a child out of wedlock, as
reported by The National Enquirer. Observers lost no time in calculating
that the girl, now 20 months old, must have been conceived in the summer of 1998,
just before Jackson took on the mission of counseling Americas
Furthermore, Jackson was carrying on an
extramarital affair just when Bill Clintons fate was providing the strongest
possible reminder that men in public life have a special responsibility to behave
honorably. His sheer recklessness in risking scandal matched Clintons.
You can argue that a politicians adultery
pertains to his private life. But a ministers? Men of the cloth are supposed to
represent virtue. To enter the clergy is to accept the duty of being and therefore
appearing especially scrupulous about your personal life. By your own choice,
your personal life becomes a public concern.
Jackson has always been a political figure
a civil rights leader but he has clothed his political
positions in the garb of religion and morality. His demands are framed as
summonses to righteousness.
Yet Jackson even took his pregnant mistress to
the White House to meet the president. Hows that for setting a good example?
If they were conservatives, Jackson and Clinton would be derided as
But to his credit, Jackson made no excuses for
himself. He said he is sorry, is providing support for the child, and is trying to reconcile
with his wife. He made a manly statement of contrition without a trace of self-pity; for
once he spoke as sinner, not victim. And unlike Clinton, he sounded genuinely
contrite. He left himself no loopholes. He didnt even blame the tabloid for
exposing his personal life.
One hopes that this episode will teach Jackson a
virtue for which he has never been conspicuous: moral modesty. He has always
assumed an accustory posture in public life, missing few opportunities to charge
others with racism and injustice. His rhetorical style is embarrassingly demagogic,
designed to inflame mob passions and making him sound stupid himself, which he
The revelation of his private conduct casts a
strange light on his recent charges that George W. Bushs presidency will be
illegitimate. His knowledge of his own flaws didnt noticeably
cramp his style; he is not a man with a sense of irony about himself. He probably
didnt expect his sins to be discovered, and he continued to assume that the
public would regard him as speaking with authority, and not as the scribes.
In truth, Jackson
is a remarkably smug man. For him, civil rights doesnt mean the rights
of each citizen; he identifies it wholly and unself-consciously with his own group
interests. Anything he understands as a gain for blacks is civil rights, and this
is how the phrase is now universally understood. White people understand that it
doesnt refer to their rights; on the contrary, it usually bodes new restrictions on
So it is startling and refreshing to hear Jackson,
for once, speaking as a frail mortal. He generally assumes the role of a reproachful
national conscience, telling the rest of us where we have gone wrong, and leaving
little room for a second opinion.
Jacksons customary smugness reflects
the influence of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., whom younger black militants
derisively nicknamed De Lawd. Unlike such genteel black spokesmen
as Roy Wilkins, King assumed a tone of moral supremacy in public, though his own
private life, as we later learned, also left much to be desired.
Jackson loves to rouse crowds, and he is very
good at it. But he never seems to address the individual conscience, the secret
recesses of the heart that great preachers find their way into. As a political activist, he
is naturally interested in results. But for a clergyman, he seems strangely
uninterested in the soul.
That is why it was touching to see him
confronting his own sins. For once he was speaking to the rest of us as if he were
one of us. His public confession was far more human than the doggerel diatribes he
is famous for. And more truly moral.
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