Jesse Jackson Jr., Saboteur?
Obama's campaign co-chairman compares his candidate to a murderer.
The first order of business for the Democratic victor of the Iowa caucuses should be to advise Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D.-Ill., one of the Obama campaign's many national co-chairmen, to choose his words more carefully. Jackson has been helpful to Obama in shoring up black support, which until recently trailed that of Hillary Clinton. (The two candidates are now in a dead heat for black support, and the Iowa victory will likely push Obama ahead.) Jackson fils came in particularly handy after his father took an implicit swipe at Obama (whom he'd previously endorsed) by writing in the Nov. 27 Chicago Sun-Times that "the Democratic candidates—with the exception of John Edwards … have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country." Six days later Jesse Jr. published a letter in the Sun-Times under the headline, "You're wrong on Obama, Dad":
I've been a witness to Obama's powerful, consistent and effective advocacy for African Americans. He is deeply rooted in the black community, having fought for social justice and economic inclusion throughout his life. On the campaign trail -- as he's done in the U.S. Senate and the state Legislature before that -- Obama has addressed many of the issues facing African Americans out of personal conviction, rather than political calculation.
But on the night of Obama's victory, Jesse Jr. had this to say to the Washington Post about the inadvisability of Obama going negative against Hillary Clinton: "The natural reminder here is O.J. [Simpson]—how does an African-American candidate attack a white woman?"
I know what Jackson meant (though I don't necessarily agree with it): If Obama criticizes Hillary too much, he'll stir up toxic racist atavisms about black men violating white women. But given the, um, toxicity of such atavisms, why mention them publicly at all? And if mention them you must, it doesn't seem very smart to bring up O.J. Simpson, who is better described as a wife-killer than as the victim of white prejudice. (Even African-Americans, who initially perceived Simpson's acquittal as just, have come around on this point. A Washington Post poll this past September found that the percentage of blacks who think Simpson was falsely accused dropped from 71 percent at the time of the 1995 verdict to 40 percent. The brisk sales of Simpson's "hypothetical" confession, If I Did It, likely lowered O.J.'s favorables further.)
Granted, one Iowa voter is reported to have posed a demented question at an Edwards rally that implied, falsely, that Obama stood shoulder to shoulder with Simpson. But I don't think the Juice is much on the mind of very many others, any more than Willie Horton is, or Charles Manson, or Jack the Ripper. Jackson was foolish to risk putting him there. If Jackson insists on making the same point again, I suggest a revision: Instead of O.J. Simpson, mention Emmett Till. Best of all, though, is to avoid all talk of Obama's victimization, especially while it remains theoretical. It was a loser for Hillary Clinton, and it's a loser for Obama, too.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Jesse Jackson Jr. courtesy the Congressional Pictorial Directory.