The Rev. Jesse Jackson, seeking resurrection after the political near-death experience of his "Hymietown" remark, begged in his speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention for the understanding of his party and the nation. "I am not a perfect servant," Jackson said. "I am a public servant."
Today, more than 16 years later, Jackson still isn't perfect and, for a while anyway, won't be public either. Having confessed Thursday to having an extramarital affair and fathering a child as a result, he has taken a leave from his role as head of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition and from his multifarious other public activities.
It's just as well. For it will be a long time, we suspect, before most Americans can listen to Jackson without thinking, "Hypocrite."
But while friends and supporters will probably be quick to offer absolution, Jackson will have a much tougher sell with the American public at large. Like Bill Clinton, to whom Jackson gave spiritual counsel during his similar episode, Jackson has handed his enemies and critics a bludgeon with which to assail him. Neither he nor his supporters should be surprised when they do. If you offer yourself as the nation's moralizer-in-chief, you'd better be sure your own moral credentials are in good order.
Jackson has always had to sail against strong headwinds in his political quests.... Now, on a whole range of issues, even those who've been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt will find it hard to take him seriously.
He is the father of a little girl now 20 months old. Her mother was an employee in the Washington offices of Rainbow-PUSH. Can Jackson ever again talk credibly about sexual harassment of women by their male bosses? Can he talk believably to audiences of young people about responsible sexuality and the value of intact families? And what does his example do except reinforce the stereotype of black men as sexually irresponsible?
Jackson no doubt will survive this embarrassment and return to public life. But it's going to be hard to take that "Rev." very seriously from now on.
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