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Jesse Jackson At DNC: The Invisible Man

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson has no official speaking role at the DNC in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
The Rev. Jesse Jackson has no official speaking role at the DNC in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If, in the history of race in presidential politics, Barack Obama is Moses -- the man who led the tribe to the White House promised land -- then the Rev. Jesse Jackson at 70 years of age is Aaron.

But unlike Aaron, Jackson has been all but erased from the narrative of the current Democratic Party.

On the downtown streets of Charlotte, vendors sell Obama family calendars and pen-and-ink drawings of African American leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt and Malcolm X. You don't see any of Jackson.

The black man who ran the first serious, history-making (and magazine cover-making) presidential campaign in 1984 -- and who lead path-breaking registration drives throughout the South during that and a subsequent campaign -- has no official speaking role here at the convention. Indeed, he didn't have one at Obama's first convention in Denver four years ago.

Jackson, who, like Obama, hails politically from Chicago, rarely talks to people in the administration or the campaign. He observed, as do other African American politicians, that the president tends to land in a major city, go straight to a fundraiser or a major political event, but rarely if ever goes to minority neighborhoods.

Jackson is seen by Obama insiders as old and wrong, too polarizing a figure to have around as they try to appeal to undecided swing (and mostly white) voters in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, (even though, people tend to forget, Jackson did very well in Iowa as a primary candidate, especially in his first campaign, which was managed by the late Paul Wellstone).

The irony is that, unlike 2008, the president is running more of a "base" campaign, and Jackson is still admired by many in that base.

In any case, Jackson is here. And despite some deep but quiet resentment among other African American leaders -- who feel that Obama has ignored them and their communities -- Jackson is taking his version of the Obama reelection message to events around town and around the country.

He is doing it, even though he is bearing a harsh personal burden: the hospitalization for bipolar disorder of his son and namesake, Chicago Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

"It's a very tough situation," he told me, choking up as he spoke.

No one should be naive about Jackson's history. He has had his personal and political controversies. His campaigns were poorly run and rife with dissension. The Rainbow Coalition as an enterprise never lived up to its promise. Jackson in his time was often a shameless hog of microphones and of publicity. He has associated with some questionable people and money sources over the years.

But he is an important figure, a savvy politician with more ability to connect with middle class voters than people tend to realize, and a practical approach to rhetoric obscured by his over-the-top efforts at soaring speechifying. He was a major figure on the South Side of Chicago long before Obama ever arrived there.

"I've had no contact with the campaign." Jackson said. "But here is what I am telling folks when I speak for the president."

Not surprisingly, his focus is on voting rights and registration of minority voters -- in a way, the organizing principle and highest and best use of his career, which stretches back to the early Civil Rights and Poor People's marches.

At a time when the Republican Party's clear strategy is to clamp down on voting processes in the name of preventing voter fraud (a rarity in fact), and when courts are the key to deciding what the rules are, Jackson argues that minority voters should support the president's reelection for that reason alone.

"The Voting Rights Act is under attack and that is the first thing I say to them," Jackson told me. "The I remind them that the president's Department of Justice is working hard to defend the law. You get Mitt Romney in there and you can forget it."

"Second I tell them about the auto industry, which has and does employ a lot of minority working people. I tell them that without the president, the auto industry would be dead. Now it's back to being number one.

"I tell kids that without the president and the Democrats, there would be less money for college. The Pell Grants would disappear.

"I remind them that we are out of Iraq and that he is working for a solution in Afghanistan.

"I explain to them that four million people more have a chance to have health insurance.

"I stick to the simplest, most straightforward stuff."

Jackson also suggested that the campaign venture forth to poor, working-class areas of Appalachia, where rural white voters might be more receptive to the president's message than the Obama campaign assumes. Ohio is critical, obviously, and "33 countries in southern and eastern Ohio are Appalachia," Jackson said. "I'd go straight to Appalachia to the mining areas and talk about workplace safety.

"But that's me," he said.

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