Jesse Jackson Speaks

Election '04

Progressive Democrats were out in full force on Thursday afternoon – the final day of the Democratic National Convention – at their own "shadow" convention, held across the Charles River, at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, in Cambridge. The three-day-long rallying effort, dubbed "Take Back America," had made headlines on Tuesday, when more than 1000 people turned out for pep speeches delivered by the two rock stars of the left wing of the party – former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker Michael Moore.

On Thursday, by contrast, the scene was far more subdued. The afternoon session, "Organizing to Take Back America," offered up the nuts-and-bolts of good grassroots action to several hundred loyal progressives. Leaders of the well-heeled political groups registering and mobilizing voters nationwide – from America Coming Together to the Campaign for America's Future (which sponsored the shadow convention) – expounded on the secrets to their voter-mobilization strategies, as well as a few election predictions for the 2004 presidential race. The general consensus among them? Never before has there been a more cohesive, more effective get-out-the-vote effort from the left. Indeed, they optimistically conclude that progressives (some 20 million Americans) represent the constituency that will lead the John Kerry and the Democratic Party to victory.

But the most interesting (and unusual) part of the panel came with the appearance of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a veteran of the progressive movement. I had attended the session specifically to hear Jackson. But when he ascended the podium, I had a hard time discerning his message. He gave a rambling, off-the-cuff speech that covered such disparate topics as the Iraq war, the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida in the 2000 elections, the ongoing civil-rights struggle, and the use of "liberal" as a dirty word. Suffice it to say, Jackson's speech lacked any real focus and no connective tissue. But he did manage to spit out a fair share of juicy sound bites. Some of them included:

o "There cannot be a monochromatic progressive movement in this country."

o Progressives are "heavy in the thought department, but have no power shaft. To get from here to California is hard to do without an airplane."

o "In an environment of stolen and frozen votes [a reference to Florida in 2000], the Bush administration has now suggested the idea of suspending the elections. What if they find bin Laden suddenly on October 31. Or on Halloween. Will they say we need to suspend the elections? You might say to me, 'That's absurd.' But is it? ...I'd say we're operating under a real cloud over the integrity of our voting ability."

o "We can win this election and still lose. If our votes count, we can vote in a civilized government. If they don't, we can't."

o "When Kerry wins, the anti-war movement will get bigger by the day."

o "The power we seek doesn't come from the top down. It comes from the bottom up, from people like you.... The people's movement made Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton make the right choices."

o "I want the Democrats to get some definition of who they are. I'm not going to run away from being called a liberal. America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea! America is a liberal idea!"

Whatever Jackson said, he fired up the progressives in the audience, all of whom responded with a rousing standing ovation. Now, apparently, they're ready to go back to work.

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