Jesse Jackson is the black Elmer Gantry.
He appears the holy man, invoking biblical scripture. He stirs the unwashed with his oratory. But like the Sinclair Lewis character, Jackson is a poseur. He uses religion for purposes of self-aggrandizement, to advance a secular agenda that has nothing to do with godliness.
Jackson's counterfeit ministry was on full display this week in Tallahassee, Fla., where he appeared before faithful Democrats, displeased about the results of the presidential election.
Drawing a reference to the biblical Exodus, Jackson likened the assembled to the ancient Hebrews, held in bondage in Pharaoh's Egypt.
The Democratic dispossessed -- blacks, feminists, gays, trial lawyers, Hollywood moguls -- have been led to the banks of the Red Sea, said Jackson. They are surrounded.
Mountains to their left (that would be Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, according to Jackson), mountains to their right (Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay), and Pharaoh's army (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) charging toward them from the rear.
But keep the faith, said Jackson. Because God -- that's right, Almighty God, according to Jackson -- is on the side of the Democrats. They are God's people. And God has anointed Al Gore -- call him Moses -- to deliver them from four years of Bush and Cheney in the White House.
Jackson sank to a new level of political demagoguery. (His remarks in Tallahassee might be called "hate preach.")
It is understandable that he is unhappy about the outcome of the presidential election, having sold his political soul to the party of Gore. But now he is engaged in a political jihad against Gov. George Bush and the Republican Party.
Indeed, since it appears Gore failed to win, since Democrats failed to recapture either chamber of Congress, Jackson suddenly finds himself with absolutely no political leverage, either at the White House or on Capital Hill. So, at least until the mid-term congressional elections two years from now, he stands in exile, a sad and impotent political figure.
The not-so-Messianic Jackson has decided that he will do everything he can to delegitimize and destabilize the Bush presidency. He is manipulating the black Democratic faithful, in particular, to assist him in his unholy war against Republicans.
Indeed, Jackson accuses Bush's party of purposefully and systematically denying the voting rights of black Americans, as if George W. is the 2000 incarnation of Bull Connor or Lester Maddox.
"African-Americans were targeted to be disenfranchised," Jackson claimed, in a political sermon at a Jacksonville church.
Yet, until the imbroglio in Florida, black leaders were congratulating themselves for a record turnout by black voters on Election Day.
NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, for instance, boasted of the civil rights organization's successful effort "to increase the number of African-Americans who cast their votes at the polls."
And Mfume, Jackson and other black leaders credit black voters with providing the winning margins for several freshly minted U.S. senators, including Democrats Debbie Stabenow in Michigan, John Corzine in New Jersey, the late Mel Carnahan in Missouri (where a judge actually held the polls open two hours late in heavily black precincts) and Bill Nelson in Florida.
If African-Americans were targeted for disenfranchisement, as Jackson alleges, then the nefarious campaign clearly misfired. For Republicans surrendered a handful of Senate seats on Election Day.
Now is the time when America needs political figures who seek to unite rather than divide; political figures who are principled enough to subordinate partisan political interest for the national interest; political figures who really and truly subscribe to the biblical dictum "love thy neighbor," even if that neighbor happens to be a member of the other party.
Jesse Jackson is unequal to this calling. He prefers to stir dissension in the streets of Tallahassee. He is satisfied to spend the next four years at war with the Bush White House.
If Jackson were more politically savvy, if not enlightened, he would be reaching out to the apparent winner. He would be trying to cultivate a respectful, if not altogether amicable, relationship with Bush so that at least the door to the Oval Office would be open to him over the next four years (even if he and the Republican did not always agree).
That's what Elmer Gantry would do.
Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune and can be reached at Joseph.Perkins@UnionTrib.com.
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