Even before announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president, the senator from Illinois knew he had the support of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
"All of my heart leans toward Barack," the civil rights leader and two-time presidential candidate said of Obama, a man he has known and worked with for the better part of a quarter century. "He is a next-door neighbor literally. I think he's an extension of our struggle to make this a more perfect union."
Jackson explained in a January, 2007, interview that: "I will talk to all of them, but my inclinations are really toward Barack."
Once Obama had formally entered the race, Jackson bluntly declared: "He'll get my vote."
Obama responded enthusiastically to the March, 2007, endorsement, declaring that, "This campaign has been about giving hope since Day One and I am proud to have the support of my friend Jesse Jackson. It is because people like Jesse ran that I have this opportunity to run for president today."
While Jackson's son, Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., has served as a co-chair of the Obama campaign, the former presidential candidate neither sought nor claimed a position in the new candidate's inner circle.
"I just have an appreciation of him," Jackson said of Obama.
That does not mean that Jackson eschewed any and all criticism of Obama. In September, 2007, the civil rights campaigner prodded the senator to get more involved in seeking a resolution to the controversy in Jena, Louisiana, where six African-American students were charged unjustly with murder. Suggesting that Obama was displaying the same caution as white candidates, Jackson said, "If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena…. Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment."
Similarly, Jackson expressed frustration with Obama on Sunday when he griped, in a conversation with another guest on a Fox News program about a perceived failure by the candidate to recognize and appreciate the challenges faced by African-American families that have suffered economic and social discrimination.
Noting Obama's speeches in African-American churches, which have placed a heavy emphasis on the responsibilities of African-Americans rather than noting the pressures created by high levels of unemployment, home foreclosures and violence, Jackson offered a private gripe to United Health Group executive Dr. Reed V. Tuckson.
Unaware that the Fox microphone was on, he said, "See, Barack's been talking down to black people ... I want to cut his nuts off."
It was, as Jackson admits, a "crude and hurtful" remark.
The minister has apologized. But he has not backed off his insistence that the presumptive Democratic nominee needs to send a broad message about how he will address the concerns not just of African Americans but of all historically disenfranchised communities.
"My support for Senator Obama's campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal. I cherish this redemptive and historical moment," explained Jackson in a note of apology that was also a call to action. "My appeal was for the moral content of his message to not only deal with the personal and moral responsibility of black males, but to deal with the collective moral responsibility of government and the public policy which would be a corrective action for the lack of good choices that often led to their irresponsibility."
While Congressman Jackson has been blunt in criticizing his father's off-color comment, Obama spokesman Bill Burton has been equally quick to suggest that the division Fox and other media outlets might want to foster between the elder Jackson and Obama, who he has backed for a year and a half, is being overblown.
"As someone who grew up without a father in the home, Senator Obama has spoken and written for many years about the issue of parental responsibility, including the importance of fathers participating in their children's lives," explains Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "He also discusses our responsibility as a society to provide jobs, justice, and opportunity for all. He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson's apology."
Bottom line: Jackson is an Obama backer, but he is also an advocate. And Obama and his savvier supporters will continue to recognize and appreciate both the support and the advocacy.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation