The US Presidential Elections: The Democratic Convention: Reluctant Jackson gives a blessing without heart

FOR a moment, it truly seemed he would stand everyone up. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, of California, had presented him with the bright-eyed excitement of a schoolgirl chosen to introduce Michael Jackson. She was, of course, referring to the Rev Jesse, of that name. But of the moody champion of Democratic conventions past: no sign.

Ten seconds went by, then 30, then 60, then 90, and still the speaker's podium was empty. Ms Pelosi looked exceedingly uncomfortable: the chorus leaders of the cheering multitudes in Madison Square Garden wondered audibly, what do we do now?

Only after an interminable two minutes were their prayers answered. Followed by the customary band of retainers, Mr Jackson at last stalked on to the stage.

Maybe, one wondered, he had just missed the right turning from one of the Garden's bewildering circular walkways. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the whole thing was deliberate, repayment in kind for a new party leadership which has gone out of its way to minimise a Jackson without delegates, who had run in no primary and who this year, for once, had extracted no concessions in advance.

Unfortunately, he had no choice but to attend. A Democratic convention without him is as unthinkable as Wimbledon without the Duke of Kent. As in 1984 and 1988, so in 1992 must his party's soul be nourished and its conscience soothed - more so, indeed, as it puts aside its past to reach back to prosperous, white suburban America, hardly the natural habitat of Jesse Jackson.

On Tuesday night, as the world now knows, he did not let the Democrats down. Familiarity has not dulled his oratory, nor the impact of those rolling church cadences, the hypnotic repetitions of the Southern preacher. He uttered the appointed mantras of hope and justice, of 'loving and caring and sharing'.

The country's cities had been abandoned to decay, 'these are our children . . . these are our children . . . these are our children . . .' The words dripped with raw passion and first-hand experience, putting in a proper perspective the trite, calculating exhortations of George Bush and Dan Quayle about 'family values' and the rest.

'Even as we spurn the homeless on the street, remember Jesus was born to a homeless couple, outdoors in a stable in the winter.

'Jesus was a child of a single mother . . . if Mary had aborted the baby she would have been called immoral. If she had the baby she would have been called unfit, without family values. But Mary had family values, it was Herod, the Quayle of his day, who put no value on the family.' A rapt silence gave way to applause that deafened.

And even for a nominee who is leading the rush to the middle ground, he found charitable words. 'President Bill Clinton, you have survived . . . it will make you stronger. The hopes of many depend on your quest. Be comforted, you do not stand alone.' For a man with whom Jackson has spent the last six weeks in public feud, that was praise indeed: no mealy- mouthed endorsement, but a benediction.

But real Jackson-watchers, those who have watched over the years the intermittent struggle between a gifted politician and his own vanity, easily discerned the sub-plot. Hardly once in an entire half- hour did he smile.

This speech was less pleasure than duty. Jackson still enthralls, but the army behind him is fragmented. No longer is he the unchallenged leader of America's black community, rather a monument to the Democrats' schizophrenia.

The warmth of the welcome displayed the longing to be faithful to the party's New Deal traditions, born from the Great Depression. But Jackson, too, is a symbol of defeats - in 1984, when he extracted concessions from Walter Mondale, and in 1988 when as candidate once more, he arrived in Atlanta armed with 7 million primary votes to bargain with Michael Dukakis. The rhetoric was even more fiery then, but the Democrats were routed in the battles which mattered.

And so in a sense, like Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Carter - two other icons being repolished in Madison Square Garden this week - Jesse Jackson belongs to the past. As always, he ended with the same peroration: 'Keep hope alive, keep hope alive, KEEP HOPE ALIVE.'

As always the crowd melted in ecstasy. A reputation had been preserved, an ego had been briefly satisfied and a role fulfilled. But this time Jesse didn't quite have his heart in it.

(Photograph omitted)

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