They are the odd couple of this campaign season, two brothers of the cloth pursuing new career opportunities, two Christian soldiers who have suspended the search for lost souls to campaign for the leadership of the great and various American flock. Though they have drawn wildly different political philosophies from their studies of holy writ, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev.-until-recently Pat Robertson are mounting bold challenges to the professional pols. Jackson patrols what he perceives as the moral high ground on the left wing of the Democratic party, while Robertson, offering himself as the Republicans’ Great Right Hope, scourges and scolds those who would keep him and his God from the Oval Office.
Though no one has yet suggested that Super Tuesday was divinely inspired, it is hard to imagine a better showcase for two candidates whose strength is concentrated in the God-fearing reaches of the South. Next Tuesday (March 8), when 20 states hold their presidential primaries, will be a good day for Jackson and Robertson, though just how good pollsters hesitate to say; their secular science can’t quite plumb the appeal of two ecclesiastics whose campaigns have the incandescent fervor of moral crusades.
While other candidates jostle each other toward the middle of the road, the two ministers have stood to the side, insisting, in the rich, practiced tones of the pulpit, on certain eternal verities—be they jobs and justice or God and family. By so doing they have mobilized people beyond the pollsters’ ken: new voters and habitual non-voters, men and women alienated from traditional politics. No one really knows, once these “invisible armies” are on the move, what they will look like when they finally materialize.
What is certain is that both candidates have emerged as men to be reckoned with, destined to run far stronger than any political observers would have predicted only a few months ago. To watch Jackson and Robertson preparing for next week’s showdown, we joined them and those who believe in them on the campaign trail in the South.
JESSE JACKSON FOLLOWS HIS RAINBOW BACK HOME TO DIXIE
The Rev. Jesse Jackson is running late, as usual, and the crowd at the state fairgrounds in Beaumont, Texas, is getting a little restless. Children fidget on the hard bleachers, and mothers try to keep the peace with a bottle or a piece of fruit. As Saturday afternoon wanes into Saturday evening, a few people pack up to leave, but most stay on, chatting under hand-lettered signs that read The Strike Is Right—Everyone Hold Tight.
For the past 16 days, Local 4-243 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union has been on strike against the Mobil oil refinery that is one of Beaumont’s biggest employers. The crowd this evening, about evenly divided between black and white, consists mostly of unionists and their families. “This is the first time that union people have taken Jackson seriously,” says James Cullen, a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise. In 1984, he says, “they thought he was a ‘black candidate.’ ”
Tonight, Jackson is offering himself as the candidate of the whole South—not just of those pockets of black rural poverty where he helped register a million new voters for the 1984 race, but of the troubled oil patch, the hard-pressed service industries and tarnished high-tech havens like Houston. Having demonstrated in chilly northern climes that he can muster enough white votes to keep a place at the table, this native son has now come home to the enviable task of building on a rock-solid base of support. The nose counters virtually concede him the black vote, so on stops like this one Jackson is courting a rainbow of other constituencies, including labor, gays, women and Hispanics.
Big business is full of “barracudas,” he tells the Beaumont crowd when he finally arrives, just after sunset; all the “small fish” are going to have to get together. The phrases may be stupefyingly familiar to the reporters traveling with Jackson, but they ring new—and true—to the hard-pressed workers of southeast Texas, where unemployment has been stuck in double digits for five years. When Jackson, cranking up the cadence, exhorts them to “get the barracudas out of the pond!” the crowd is ready to bloody the waters.
Later, as the rally is breaking up, Jackson’s campaign manager, Jerry Austin, spots someone he knows, Bruce Hill, and steers him over to meet the candidate. Hill, 48, is business manager for the local pipe fitters union. He was also, Austin tells Jackson, at the big civil rights march in Selma, Ala., in 1965. “Yeah, I was there,” says Hill. “On the other side.” Twenty-three years ago, Hill marched with the Klan. Today he supports Jackson. “I was young and full of it,” says Hill of that earlier time. “I’ve changed. Just like a lot of us ol’ Southern boys. Jesse Jackson is right on the issues as far as the working man is concerned. He wants insurance for our sick and a good retirement for our old people.”
Despite the fact that he now travels on a chartered DC-9, and not the rickety turboprop that tested the faith of staffers in ’84, Jackson is still running on a shoestring, outspent by front-runners like Michael Dukakis by as much as 100 to 1. With no money for television spots, the campaign inevitably overworks its one real asset, the reverend himself, who exerts the magnetism of a rock star. Beginning at dawn on most days, he is rushed at a killing pace from debate to picket line to nursing home to political rally. It is nearly midnight on the second day of his Texas swing when he arrives at the home of a prominent Hispanic couple to speak to some 50 well-heeled supporters. Jackson chides the group not to “dress Guccily and give pennily.” But after 17 hours of campaigning, it’s hard to keep up the banter. “Come on, I want you to be as serious about raisin’ money as you are about saying ‘Right on,’ ” he declares. “I’m real tired.” As he makes his way out, one of his Secret Service agents, noting a step down into the next room, gently points it out to Jackson and takes his elbow. Later, another agent will say, “He was tired last night. He was really hurtin’.”
The next morning, though, Jackson has rebounded and is off to Minnesota. “Sometimes if I’m back in Chicago,” marvels Austin, “he’ll call me at 1 in the morning and then again at 5.” The grueling schedule, Austin explains, is geared to “action points”—colorful encounters between the eloquent candidate and his enthusiastic supporters that are virtual shoo-ins for the evening news. “Every night at 5 o’clock our candidate is on the air somewhere,” says Austin.
But the Minicams weren’t running that night in Beaumont as Jackson, walking back to his plane, chatted with Linda Hill, wife of the former Klan sympathizer. “He told her to keep me out of trouble. To keep them sheets off my face,” says Bruce Hill with a chuckle. “But then was then and today’s today. More Southern white people are for him this time.”
PAT ROBERTSON PUTS HIS FAITH IN A POLITICAL MIRACLE
Gliding above the idled drilling rigs of the East Texas oil frontier, a gleaming white jet slowly circles down, bringing to earth the man of God who would be the man of the people. Television preacher turned presidential candidate Pat Robertson is coming to evangelize the economically beleaguered town of Tyler (pop. 75,200), hoping to recruit these harried Texans in his crusade for a Republican primary upset on Super Tuesday. Within hours of his descent from the skies, Robertson has a conservative crowd of 800 thundering their applause at his clarion call for “the ultimate elimination of Communist tyranny from the face of the earth.” Then, with a vow “to bring God back into the classrooms of America,” he brings them leaping to their feet, shouting approval.
These are the people the polls have missed, the so-called invisible army of true believers who, roused by Robertson’s flag-waving rhetoric, swept him to a stunning second-place finish over Vice-President George Bush in Iowa. Their presence was less obvious in New Hampshire, where their candidate wound up fifth, but with hundreds of Southern delegates to be plucked on Super Tuesday, Robertson plans to prove once again that his strength must be reckoned with. Critics may deride his claims to a widening political base, but they are bound to concede his potency in the heartland of American Christian fundamentalism. As Robertson says of his fellow candidates, “In the South, they’re playing in my backyard.”
The son of the late U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson and his fervently born-again wife, Gladys, Robertson still retains the courtly manners of the Virginia gentleman who went to Yale Law School and keeps horses at his stately farm in Virginia Beach. A jowly, 210-lb. doughboy, he recently lumbered into a Dallas gathering wearing jeans and high-gloss cowboy boots, eager to press the flesh with the adoring crowd.
But beneath the easy smile and the nervous giggle beats the heart of a zealot who wants to bomb Gaddafi and dismantle the Soviet empire. Before Iowa, most observers dismissed Robertson as a political kook with no mainstream appeal. Now, says GOP consultant John Deardourff, “you’ve got to take your hat off to him and the job he’s been able to do showing that a tight-knit, motivated group can have some real impact.” Indeed, some Republicans now fear that Robertson’s well-drilled troops could tar the whole party with his extremist views.
The Robertson machine draws its energy from the constituency he created through his Christian Broadcasting Network and its showcase feature, The 700 Club. That show reached a million homes every broadcast with Robertson’s on-air faith healing and his homilies on America’s moral decay. When Robertson stepped down from The 700 Club in September, his message had already been spread across the nation without attracting the unwelcome attention of the press. As demonstrated by Robertson’s dubious statements recently about Soviet missiles in Cuba, reporters have the annoying habit of not taking the reverend’s statements on faith. To circumvent the media, the Robertson camp is distributing millions of audio cassettes of Robertson’s fiery oratory across the South, handing them out like leaflets at every event. There’s also a $5 video that supporters are encouraged to watch in groups and a tape especially targeted to Texas’s 18,000 gas and oil men, promising a two-year tax break on new exploration.
“People around here don’t stand up and scream, but you can just feel something happening,” says Rusty Draper, 44, as he leans back in a folding chair at Robertson’s Tyler headquarters. A former radio deejay, Draper marched against the war in the ’60s and turned to religion in the ’70s because “my life was too empty.” These days, he does public relations for Christian radio and spends all his free time working for Robertson. Already, a core of about 100 volunteers in Tyler have set up an elaborate phone bank with computerized voter lists. “This is a very conservative, church-centered area, and I’ll tell you something,” says Draper, “Texas people don’t like politicians coming in here and saying ‘I’m one of you’ when they’re not. We understand Pat Robertson’s talk.”