Careful, Jesse: That mike is live
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There's a great story about a children's radio host in the 1950s and what he allegedly said when he didn't think his microphone was on.
According to the legend, the exhausted host had just finished his children's program when he said to his crew: "There, that ought to hold the little bastards."
It's a perfect story that, in an ideal world, would have been enough of a consolation to make the Rev. Jesse Jackson feel better about his own recent faux pas in front of an open microphone.
Alas, the story about the children's radio host is totally apocryphal. It didn't happen.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jackson's whispered remarks to health care executive Reed Tuckson in front of a "hot mic" on a Fox News program in Chicago did happen, as footage circulating on the Internet shows.
After the interview wrapped, Mr. Jackson and Mr. Tuckson were sitting side by side when the civil rights leader began whispering:
"See, Barack been, um, talking down to black people on this faith-based [pause]. I want to cut his [testicles] out."
Mr. Jackson then made a gesture as if ripping a strip of weed from the ground. Mr. Tuckson's eyes grew wide. You can't tell if he's horrified or titillated by the good reverend's vulgarity.
Mr. Jackson continued: "Barack, [pause] he's talking down to black people."
Why it took Fox News half the work week to go public with Mr. Jackson's remarks is one of the biggest mysteries in journalism.
The quote represents Mr. Jackson's greatest gift to a journalist since he uttered his infamous "Hymietown" slur about New York to reporter Milton Coleman, who reported them in The Washington Post in 1984.
Instead of waiting for Bill O'Reilly to air the segment, Mr. Jackson scrambled to get in front of the story as it broke Wednesday.
The civil rights leader called the Obama campaign and apologized profusely. He also held a press conference to apologize for the crudeness of his words:
"[This] thing I said in a hot-mic statement that's interpreted as a distraction, I offer apology for that. I don't want harm or hurt to come to this campaign. My support for Sen. Obama's campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal. I cherish this redemptive and historical moment."
Mr. Jackson's son, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., the co-chair of Mr. Obama's presidential campaign, denounced his father's comments: "I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric."
No less an authority on racial grievance than the Rev. Al Sharpton weighed in on Mr. Jackson's statement: "We must be careful not to segregate Sen. Obama and impose some litmus test that is unfair and unproductive."
If you're Jesse Jackson, suffering through a lecture about racial politics from Rev. Al is a lot like the Joker tolerating an evening of really bad stand-up by the Riddler. It just isn't right.
For his part, Mr. Obama has been gracious about accepting Mr. Jackson's apology even though it works for him politically to be criticized by a man much of white America considers a "tree shaker and not a jelly maker."
The Democratic nominee looks all the more moderate in comparison. Sometimes a vulgar put-down comes at just the right time.
Still, Jesse Jackson's whispered criticism of Mr. Obama resonates with a lot of old guard civil rights leaders and their constituents who are uncomfortable with his shifting positions in recent weeks.
In a statement hinting at why he was frustrated by Mr. Obama's emphasis on black self-help, Mr. Jackson wrote:
"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."
In many ways, Mr. Jackson's criticism parallels the growing disenchantment of other constituents on the liberal end of Mr. Obama's base.
Mr. Obama has been pilloried in many quarters for his evolving position on the Iraq war, his federal surveillance law vote, his criticism of the Supreme Court's decision on capital punishment for child rapists and for vowing to continue Mr. Bush's faith-based initiatives.
"Liberal Bloggers Accuse Obama of Trying to Win Election," screamed the headline in the latest edition of a satirical blog, The Borowitz Report. "Nominee Called Traitor to Democrats' Losing Tradition."
Sometimes the truth is so funny it hurts.
First Published July 11, 2008 12:00 am