Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Contenders: Gary Hart & Jesse Jackson (OZY Media/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the vice-presidential debate I watched the next two shows on PBS, including the next episode of The Contenders: 16 for ’16, “The Visionaries,” which was helped structurally by the fact that it was about two people — Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson — who ran in the same party in the same elections (1984 and 1988) — and it helps that Hart, Jackson and Walter Mondale are all still alive and agreed to be interviewed for the program. (It’s also sad to compare what they looked like then with what they look like now.) Indeed, Jackson had an executive producer credit on the show — and his credit was printed in red instead of white so it would stand out — making me wonder if the mysterious “OZY Media” that’s listed as the producing studio for this series is a Jackson enterprise. The show depicts Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign (which I supported) as a campaign for the future over the past; though Hart wasn’t anywhere nearly as radical as Bernie Sanders, he was similarly an insurgent candidate whose base of support was among young people, and at a time when the computer revolution was just beginning (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, founders of Apple, were among his friends and advisors on technology issues) Hart was talking seriously about what the U.S. government would need to do to make sure we exploited these new technologies for maximum public benefit.

The show also said that, contrary to the impression I had at the time, Mondale’s nomination was not a done deal when the Democratic convention started in San Francisco that year — Hart actually proposed a deal with Jackson by which they would block the nomination of Mondale by joining forces (the implication was that Jackson would have been Hart’s running mate), but Jackson egomaniacally demanded that the only way he would consent to an alliance with Hart would be if Hart withdrew from the race and supported him — and Hart said that was ridiculous because he had come to the convention with 1,200 delegates and Jackson had only 300. So they didn’t ally, Mondale won the nomination (thanks largely to the early pledges from appointed superdelegates — the superdelegates were put in place after George McGovern’s landslide defeat to make sure the Democratic Party never nominated a Left-wing insurgent again, and so far they have worked as intended) and then got creamed by Ronald Reagan in the fall. (Next week’s Contenders episode deals with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan — and Reagan will be the first person depicted here who actually won the Presidency.) The show also depicts the fiasco of Hart’s 1988 campaign, particularly the total meltdown that occurred after the Miami Herald put him under 24/7 surveillance to find out if he was having sex with a woman other than his wife (Hart mentions in his contemporary interview that it wasn’t a big secret — he had his wife had gone through two separations and he had openly dated other women while he and his wife were living apart). It’s clear that Hart didn’t think his sex life would be a career-ender — he says he thought we were still living in the age of Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, whose infidelities had been deliberately ignored by the media because they thought it was none of the public’s damned business — and he was an early victim of the coming-together of the tabloid media and the “mainstream” media, which blurred all lines of taste and made politicians’ private lives fair game. (Then again, the modus vivendi under which FDR and JFK could carry on sexually and not be reported on hadn’t always been in effect; in 1884 Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child became a big campaign issue but he, like Bill Clinton in 1992, survived the revelation and won anyway.)

The Jackson segment of The Contenders wasn’t as interesting — I never supported Jesse Jackson for President (though I covered a rally he had at the Organ Pavilion in 1988) and part of what put me off about him was the sheer venom of his rhetoric: the all-out assault on the senses that works in a Black church simply didn’t come off well on the political stump. I also ridiculed the pretentiousness of his claim to be creating a “Rainbow Coalition” of marginalized and disaffected groups; at the time I would joke about “Jesse Jackson and His All-Black Rainbow.” If one can argue that Jesse Jackson paved the way for Barack Obama (though one of the subjects of the first episode of The Contenders, Shirley Chisholm, had paved the way for both of them!), one can also argue that to get elected the first Black President one had to have a calmer, more even, less obviously emotional and hortatory rhetorical style. The night Obama won and gave his acceptance speech, it occurred to me that Obama compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. the way Miles Davis compared to Louis Armstrong: softer, subtler, more urbane and without the pulpit-derived flourishes that could make a Black person a moral leader but not a credible politician. It’s not clear just how Hart or Jackson would have fared in a general election if they’d made it that far, though my suspicion is the Reagan juggernaut was just too formidable and whoever the Democrats put up in 1984 would have lost to him (though Mondale’s loss proved to us unrepentant McGovernites that the Democrats could lose just as badly with a boring old-line centrist as they could with a progressive), just as Reagan had enough coattails to get the not particularly inspiring George H. W. Bush elected in 1988 against the equally colorless Michael Dukakis.