Tuesday, July 15, 2008


What did the Rev. Jesse Jackson mean when he accused Barack Obama of “talking down to black people”?

That was the second question on my mind in a telephone interview with Mr. Jackson. My first was something like this: “Did you really say you wanted to castrate Obama?”

As the world knows by now, Mr. Jackson says he didn’t know he was wearing a “hot mic,” a turned-on microphone, on the set of a Fox News program when he made what one newspaper headline called his “cutting remark.” Remember the old saying about how character is what you do when nobody’s looking? Mr. Jackson’s inflammatory whispers suggest a new twist: Character is what you do when you don’t know that the world may be listening.

If so, his whispers about America’s first likely black Democratic presidential nominee reveal Mr. Jackson at his worst. He sound frustrated, marginalized and left by the side of the road in the rising glow of a younger star.

Mr. Jackson did not dispute that he made the vulgar remark in angry whispers to another show guest about Mr. Obama’s recent call to expand President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Twice he complained that Mr. Obama has been “talking down to black people.”

That was a reference, Mr. Jackson says, to speeches like Mr. Obama’s Father’s Day address at the predominantly black Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. It was a speech in which Mr. Obama revealed his inner Bill Cosby. He called for more parental responsibility, whether it was assisted by government help or not. “Any fool can have a child,” Mr. Obama preached. “That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.

Mr. Jackson, too, has called for parental responsibility. I was part of the national media that gave glowing coverage to his PUSH for Excellence drive in the 1970s. Across the country he preached to black youths: “You are not a man because you can make a baby. You’re only a man if you can raise a baby, protect a baby and provide for a baby.” One can only imagine how Mr. Jackson must feel seeing Mr. Obama - or Mr. Cosby - receive national applause for saying what Mr. Jackson has been saying for decades.

The difference between his approach and Mr. Obama’s, Mr. Jackson said, is that Mr. Obama was not saying enough about government and private sector obligations to help the poor. That’s a worthwhile debate. In fact, the self-help vs. outside help argument has been going on inside black America for decades. But the enthusiastic response Mr. Obama has received from black audiences belies the notion he is condescending to them. They don’t appear to feel talked down to. They sound like they agree with him.

And Mr. Jackson had to twist himself into rhetorical knots to explain how that nuance of difference between his rhetoric and Mr. Obama’s called for such an angry and vulgar response. After all, he insisted later, his support for Mr. Obama’s candidacy is “unequivocal,” partly because Mr. Obama has campaigned for so many of the issues Mr. Jackson supports.

No, I suspect Mr. Jackson’s objection has less to do with what Mr. Obama said than with who was saying it. Mr. Jackson misses the national spotlight that he has not held in recent years. Deep down, his anger suggests Mr. Jackson wanted the world - and Mr. Obama - to know how angry he was. His objection sends a message that sounds more personal than political: He will not be ignored.

If so, he got his wish, although not with the sort of publicity he would like to have had. Even his son Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat and an Obama campaign co-chairman, issued a statement that scolded his father with the strongest rebuke a loving son could give.

Politically, the elder Mr. Jackson’s scorn comes as an odd gift to Mr. Obama. Working-class white voters and others who were put off by video clips of his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, may well be oddly reassured that he has upset Mr. Jackson.

For us African-Americans, Mr. Jackson has exposed to the world a barbershop and beauty salon conversation that has been going on for decades among black folks. Mr. Jackson’s presidential runs prepared the way for Mr. Obama, but so did Bill Cosby. Black folks used to hesitate to be too self-critical in public, for fear of “airing dirty laundry” and the like. But, despite criticisms from some black elite intellectuals who charge that he’s “blaming the victim,” Mr. Cosby’s popularity has hardly suffered. Neither, it appears, has Mr. Obama’s.

That’s because they don’t talk down to their audiences. They enlist their audience as partners.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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