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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The trouble with Jesse

By Jack E. White

May 10, 1999
Web posted at: 10:12 a.m. EDT (1412 GMT)

TIME magazine

I'll never forget the last night of Jesse Jackson's mission to free U.S. Navy flyer Robert Goodman from captivity in Syria. Another reporter and I were in Jackson's hotel suite in Damascus, beating the reverend and one of his buddies at bid whist, a homeboy version of bridge. But when it was Jackson's turn to deal, he rolled his eyes toward heaven, mumbled something under his breath, and dealt himself a "Boston"--meaning that he won all the tricks. He was still gloating over his luck a few minutes later when Syria's Foreign Minister telephoned with word that Goodman would be released.

For Jackson, life can't get any better than it was that night in 1984. Securing Goodman's release instantly transformed him, in the public mind, from a doggerel-spouting opportunist into a diplomatic star and serious presidential candidate. But only a few weeks later, Jackson's references to New York City as "Hymie Town" hit the front pages, plunging him--and his standing in the polls--into a depression. Ever since, through two presidential campaigns and countless crusades, he has been trying to recapture the acclaim he won in Damascus and the euphoric high it gave him.

That's one reason Jackson has made a career of giving dictators such as Slobodan Milosevic a chance to show their gentler side by releasing captives at his request. It's not mere ego tripping, as some cynics charge, or an expression of Jackson's deeply held belief in nonviolence. It's almost Faustian. I think he needs the rush that only bargaining with evil can provide.

Tyrants like Hafez Assad, Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and Milosevic didn't have to check with anybody before they cut a deal with Jackson. They just did it, providing him with instant gratification and themselves with a propaganda bonanza that typically includes the reverend's fervently imploring the U.S. President to give them a call. If Jackson were to bad-mouth the butcher with whom he was just holding hands and praying, the next one just might turn him away.

Jackson contends that seeing the potential for redemption even in a despot is a preacher's duty. His one-on-one chat with Milosevic must have sounded like a pastoral counseling session. "You're angry, perhaps hurt, recycling your pain," Jackson says he told the Serbian leader, adding, "Champions have to play through their pain. You have to see the power of a diplomatic bridge, not a bloody war." He insists that he stressed that Milosevic must withdraw his forces from Kosovo and agree to an international peacekeeping force and repatriation of refugees, as NATO demands.

Jackson vehemently denies that he is blinded by the glib moral equalizing that afflicts some NATO critics, who seem to think that NATO and Milosevic are equally responsible for the carnage in the Balkans. But at times he seems to be trying to have it both ways. On the CNN show Crossfire, he maintained that NATO's bombing campaign "corresponds with the kind of ethnic-cleansing violence you see in Kosovo." But two days later he told me that he thinks NATO's bombing has served "our moral mission of stopping the ethnic cleansing." He adds, "But it's not stopping the ethnic cleansing. We must be seen to be as willing to negotiate as we are to bomb."

I don't disagree. But his appeal to Clinton to "give peace a chance" would carry more weight if Jackson coupled it with an equally forceful public reminder to the Serbian strongman that he can stop the bombing whenever he chooses--by halting the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Kosovo. Otherwise, Jackson is simply playing into Milosevic's hand.


Cover Date: May 17, 1999

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