The Reverend Jesse Jackson has acknowledged siring a child out of wedlock, as reported by The National Enquirer. Observers lost no time in calculating that the girl, now 20 months old, must have been conceived in the summer of 1998, just before Jackson took on the mission of “counseling” America’s first adulterer.
Furthermore, Jackson was carrying on an extramarital affair just when Bill Clinton’s fate was providing the strongest possible reminder that men in public life have a special responsibility to behave honorably. His sheer recklessness in risking scandal matched Clinton’s.
You can argue that a politician’s adultery pertains to his private life. But a minister’s? Men of the cloth are supposed to represent virtue. To enter the clergy is to accept the duty of being — and therefore appearing — especially scrupulous about your personal life. By your own choice, your personal life becomes a public concern.
Jackson has always been a political figure — a “civil rights leader” — but he has clothed his political positions in the garb of religion and morality. His demands are framed as summonses to righteousness.
Yet Jackson even took his pregnant mistress to the White House to meet the president. How’s that for setting a good example? If they were conservatives, Jackson and Clinton would be derided as “church-going hypocrites.”
But to his credit, Jackson made no excuses for himself. He said he is sorry, is providing support for the child, and is trying to reconcile with his wife. He made a manly statement of contrition without a trace of self-pity; for once he spoke as sinner, not victim. And unlike Clinton, he sounded genuinely contrite. He left himself no loopholes. He didn’t even blame the tabloid for exposing his personal life.
One hopes that this episode will teach Jackson a virtue for which he has never been conspicuous: moral modesty. He has always assumed an accustory posture in public life, missing few opportunities to charge others with racism and injustice. His rhetorical style is embarrassingly demagogic, designed to inflame mob passions and making him sound stupid himself, which he is not.
The revelation of his private conduct casts a strange light on his recent charges that George W. Bush’s presidency will be “illegitimate.” His knowledge of his own flaws didn’t noticeably cramp his style; he is not a man with a sense of irony about himself. He probably didn’t expect his sins to be discovered, and he continued to assume that the public would regard him as speaking with authority, and not as the scribes.
In truth, Jackson is a remarkably smug man. For him, civil rights doesn’t mean the rights of each citizen; he identifies it wholly and unself-consciously with his own group interests. Anything he understands as a gain for blacks is civil rights, and this is how the phrase is now universally understood. White people understand that it doesn’t refer to their rights; on the contrary, it usually bodes new restrictions on their freedoms.
So it is startling and refreshing to hear Jackson, for once, speaking as a frail mortal. He generally assumes the role of a reproachful national conscience, telling the rest of us where we have gone wrong, and leaving little room for a second opinion.
Jackson’s customary smugness reflects the influence of his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr., whom younger black militants derisively nicknamed “De Lawd.” Unlike such genteel black spokesmen as Roy Wilkins, King assumed a tone of moral supremacy in public, though his own private life, as we later learned, also left much to be desired.
Jackson loves to rouse crowds, and he is very good at it. But he never seems to address the individual conscience, the secret recesses of the heart that great preachers find their way into. As a political activist, he is naturally interested in results. But for a clergyman, he seems strangely uninterested in the soul.
That is why it was touching to see him confronting his own sins. For once he was speaking to the rest of us as if he were one of us. His public confession was far more human than the doggerel diatribes he is famous for. And more truly moral.