And in this corner, the Rainbow Coalition!

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The Reverend Jesse Jackson was ahead of his time.

Back in 1984, when he first* ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, I was in college at the University of Iowa, and damn, was I psyched to take part in my first caucus. Double damn was I psyched at the prospect of a black U.S. president. He never had a chance in hell.

We were going on four years of Reagan at that point, and though you'd never know it based on the Gipper's current lionization, he was not popular. His approval rating in 1983 was at 35 percent, lower even than George W. Bush in his second term (37 percent). And it's no wonder. We were in a recession—well, supposedly just out of a recession, but really in one of those postrecessions that really, really still seems like a recession. (Sound familiar?) People were suffering, losing their jobs, their houses, their farms, their savings. (Sound familiar?) Meanwhile Reagan continued to call for tax cuts on the rich on the theory that this would stimulate job growth and the economy. (Sound familiar?) He also called for the U.S. to be king of the world and, I guess just to put some skin in the game, invaded the tiniest country in the Western Hemisphere.

In that environment who wouldn't be psyched to join a coalition that sought to unite whites, blacks, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Asian-Americans, gays and lesbians, family farmers, the working-class, the homeless, the unemployed, the suffering, the 20-year-olds?

So there I stood one snowy night in January, huddled with other Jackson supporters in the corner of a school gymnasium in Iowa City, Iowa. The way the Iowa Democratic caucuses work? People who've made up their minds gather with their fellows and try to woo those coy and often clueless ones, the undecideds. After a period of such wooing, a vote is taken, and candidates garnering less than 15 percent of those present are booted, narrowing the second round down to the "viable" contenders. Here's where it gets interesting. Supporters of candidates who fail to make the inital cut can either drop out or ally themselves with supporters of other "inviable" candidates in an attempt to make the 15 percent grade. As I recall, we Jacksonites, unenthused by Walter Mondale, made a deal with the backers of Gary Hart, he of a sex scandal to come, and got at least a couple of county delegates out of it.

And then we all got Mondale—and Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket. And then we got killed.

Red = Reagan/Bush
  • Red = Reagan

Not since Alf Landon had there been a loser this big. Mondale just barely took his home state of Minnesota.

Jackson surprised many by taking third in the Democratic primary overall. He moved many, many more with his "Rainbow Coalition" speech at the Democratic National Convention. I remember rolling my eyes at his preacherly penchant for alliteration—his constituency, he said, was the "desperate, the damned, the disinherited, the disrespected, and the despised." But tears still come to those same eyes at his call "to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to teach the illiterate, to provide jobs for the jobless." We were not a perfect people, not a perfect party, he said. We did have "a perfect mission." There was such a thing as "a call to conscience."



But as they say, that was then, this is now. One of the current candidates for president used to talk in a not dissimilar way along these lines. Then he took office. The other viable never has—that kind of thing is the job of charity, not government, you know. Jesse Jackson is the figurehead for a weekly column in the Sun-Times.

*Jackson ran again in '88.

Read more from Election Flashback Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

"Screw this election—let's talk about past elections all week," by Tal Rosenberg
"Johnnie To's Election, which has little in common with the U.S. presidential election," by Ben Sachs
"Remembrances of election past—the throbbing heart of freedom," by Michael Miner

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