During one of his historic runs for the presidency, the Rev. Jesse Jackson defined his management style this way: "I'm a tree shaker, not a jelly maker."
It was a statement of such astonishing glibness that ardent supporters were left sputtering for words. As Mr. Jackson made clear, the nitty-gritty of policy was best left to suckers and nerds. He was a "change agent."
Mr. Jackson's boast embodied the chutzpah and opportunism of a man who had never held elected office or run for one prior to his bid for the presidency.
It took a few election cycles, but Mr. Jackson has come up with a fresh quote to make us forget his "jelly maker" gaffe.
This week, while leading a voter registration drive in South Carolina, Mr. Jackson took out the long knives on the Democratic presidential candidate he ostensibly endorsed already: U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
In a speech at the historically black Benedict College, Mr. Jackson accused Mr. Obama of "acting like he's white" for not rushing to Jena, La., to champion the case of six black juveniles in the crosshairs of a district attorney's office nostalgic for the days of justice meted out along racial lines.
"If I were a candidate, I'd be all over Jena," Mr. Jackson said, revealing his penchant for calculation. "Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment."
With advice like that, is there any wonder Jesse Jackson isn't president? Yet he is the same man who now presumes to give Mr. Obama advice on how to win the presidency.
Though hardly the same caliber of the 1965 march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the bloody debacle of Selma's "Bloody Sunday," the Jena 6 case is, at the very least, a Duke lacrosse-sized miscarriage of justice in the making.
The tenacity of white racism and the mania to preserve petty racial hierarchies left over from the Jim Crow era impart a frozen-in-amber quality to the inhabitants in that backwards Southern town.
Thousands of protesters marched in Jena yesterday over the excessive criminal charges filed against six black teenagers for beating a white teenager last year.
These boys, known as the Jena 6, were originally supposed to stand trial for attempted murder, but the charges were rolled back to battery once the story started getting national attention.
Local prosecutor Reed Walters makes Michael Nifong, the disgraced DA of the Duke lacrosse case, look like Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is so much evidence of his office's racial animus that Jena might as well open a chain of Scottsboro Boys Motels to capitalize on it.
While black and white students had equal complicity in the escalating violence that began over an argument about who could sit under a tree at the high school, the charges filed against six black students were so grossly out of proportion to the crime that one's first reaction is to laugh at the antebellum audacity of it all.
Who can blame Mr. Obama for keeping his distance from the media circus Jena has become now that both Mr. Jackson and Al Sharpton, the Siegfried & Roy of racial politics, are on the scene?
I doubt that even the Secret Service detail Mr. Obama acquired in May would be enough to prevent him from being trampled by the veteran publicity hounds as they dive at every open microphone and TV camera.
"It isn't a matter of black and white," Mr. Obama said in response to Mr. Jackson's criticism. "It's a matter of right and wrong."
No presidential candidate is dumb enough to go to Jena just to provide a photo-op for Messrs. Jackson and Sharpton. If political astuteness constitutes "acting like he's white," then Mr. Obama is clearly guilty of that. You don't have to go to Jena to prove that you are outraged by the injustice there.
"When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it's a tragedy," Mr. Obama said earlier this month. "It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions. This isn't just Jena's problem; it's America's problem."
An earlier incarnation of Jesse Jackson couldn't have agreed more: "Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides," he once said. "[Leadership] must bring sides closer together."
Barack Obama's political career epitomizes this ethic that Jesse Jackson once espoused. For the first minority candidate with a reasonable shot at being elected president to be slammed for "acting white" by a man who paved the way for him is appalling.
Why do I have a feeling that somebody's invitation to Oprah's house party for Barack Obama at her California estate must have gotten lost in the mail?
Tony Norman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1631.