07/21/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton: Two Angry Men of a Certain Age

How must Jesse Jackson have felt last January when political pundits and Barack Obama aides erupted in outrage after Bill Clinton dismissed Obama's big win in the South Carolina primary as nothing more than Jackson's wins there in 1984 and 1988? (Obama won four of five black votes in the state, 53 percent of the state's voters are black; so what did anyone expect? Jackson did not go on to win the nomination, Clinton seemed to be implying, and neither would Obama.) How insulted Jesse Jackson must have felt as the media cast the former president's outburst as the ugliest kind of slur on Obama.

Jesse Jackson loves to be in the spotlight. But not Wednesday when he had to apologize publicly to Obama for whispering to a fellow guest on a Fox News show that he wanted to castrate the likely next president of the United States. The pain on Jackson's fleshy face showed he would have preferred to have been anywhere but the spotlight.

Does Jesse Jackson believe (and resent) that Obama has ridden on the coattails of the great civil rights leaders (such as himself) to be president? It would surprise no one who has followed Jackson's career to imagine that Jackson thinks he should have been president. Or if not he, then how about his son, Jesse Jackson, Jr., a congressman from Illinois with much bigger ambitions, who found himself sidelined by a phenomenon named Barack Obama. Jackson Jr. was smart enough to get on Obama's bandwagon; Jackson Sr. also got on, endorsing Obama, but not with his son's grace and enthusiasm.

The aging civil rights activist reminded me during this latest embarrassment of no one so much as Bill Clinton during his wife's ill-fated, ill-run campaign. These are both men who carry an insatiable need to be at center stage.

In Bill Clinton's case the need was manifest in his speeches, supposedly on Hillary's behalf, but often more about him -- "me, me, me!" When Obama drew one of his characteristically huge crowds, Bill Clinton, campaigning in eastern Texas, reminded his ever-shrinking audiences that a million people had come to hear him speak in Africa. "I've been told I give a pretty good speech," he said. He would sometimes veer close to forgetting to mention Hillary or he would use the platform to polish or even misrepresent his own legacy.

I doubt that either of these two flawed giants would feel much like commiserating with the other. Their history is tangled and tarnished. When I was writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, about Bill Clinton's post presidency, I interviewed a man named Buzz Patterson, a White House military aide (Air Force) who carried the nuclear football, the 45-pound suitcase containing the nation's nuclear launch codes that allows the President to order a strike. Patterson, no friend of the president's -- he has right-wing ties and has written harshly negative books about Clinton -- traveled with Bill Clinton wherever he went, including Camp David, where he screened all Clinton's calls. Patterson claims that when calls came from Jesse Jackson, who "was always calling in favors," Clinton would often refuse to take the phone. Yet Clinton used Jackson as a pastoral counselor, calling him to the White House to offer the Clinton family, including Chelsea, counseling during the worst days of Lewinsky and impeachment.

Another Jackson son, Yusef, was helped to get the hugely lucrative Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship covering Chicago's North and Northwest Sides by one of Bill Clinton's closest friends/supporters, Ron Burkle, the grocery store billionaire, who vouched for Yusef with the Busch family. Both Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson have sat on Burkle's board. When the senior Jackson had his own sex scandal, including fathering a daughter out of wedlock, Burkle, through his Yucaipa Companies, put the mother of that child, for a time, on a $10,000-a-month retainer.

And so it goes as it always has, the older generation, especially in an ego-soaked business like politics, does not go easily. Just as Bill Clinton seems resistant to learning from his own mistakes -- Democrats should rejoice that Hillary did not win the nomination; they should lobby against Hillary being named the vice president because when the spotlight is trained on Bill Clinton's personal life, the picture may not be pretty -- so does Jesse Jackson. In 1984 a Washington Post reporter heard Jackson use the words "Hymies" and "Hymietown" for Jews and New York City. Because the reporter was African American, Jackson reportedly hoped that he would keep the ugly putdowns to himself. He didn't. Today, whether the fellow guest to whom Jackson whispered the comments on "Fox and Friends" would have repeated them doesn't matter. They were captured electronically and the video of Jackson saying he wanted to "cut" off the younger man's "nuts" is being seen and heard around the world.

Neither Bill Clinton nor Jesse Jackson is likely to have a key role in the general election. But if they don't tone down their antics, they risk moving dangerously close to parody. Chicagoan Howard Tullman, President Emeritus of Chicago's Kendall College and a FOB (Friend of Bill's), told me when I was writing my book that he sometimes worried, earlier in Clinton's post presidency, that the former president could become "the next Jesse Jackson" who shows up wherever a camera and a microphone beckon.