THE last American political hero, it is often said, was Robert F. Kennedy '48. Twenty years ago, seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy ignited the spirits of the young, the poor and the downtrodden in American society. With his murder, a powerful voice for the disposessed was silenced. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, with his message of hope and inclusion, has become the newest American hero.
Kennedy has been remembered as one of the few politicians in the modern era able to make a empathetic connection with the people. In his biography of Kennedy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. speaks of how when Kennedy visited Harlem or Watts he felt that the poor children were his children, and he shared their pain, their anguish, and their outrage. That emotional bond helped Kennedy mobilize thousands of previously disaffected voters to his campaign.
Jackson has achieved even more. Where Kennedy was a voice for the poor, Jackson is the voice of the poor. Kennedy's link with the fringes of society was through compassion; Jackson's link--having grown up poor, black, and illegitimate--comes from shared experiences of alienation and persecution.
These experiences have allowed Jackson to more eloquently articulate his politics of inclusion and his principle of common ground. During this campaign Jackson has begun to repair the fragmented Democratic Party coalition of labor, farmers, the poor, women and minorities.
IN an address last week at Sanders Theatre, which was as much an announcement for a 1992 candidacy as a campaign stop for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, Jackson spoke directly to the role of the youth of America in this coalition, urging them to participate in the political process. Challenging the prevailing mood of apathy, Jackson called upon students to recognize their latent political power. "Whenever young America has come alive," he said, "America has always been made better. By the sheer power of your courage, your innocence, your idealism, your will to make a difference, you've always made America better."
Jackson lambasted critics of Mike Dukakis's lack of passion, explaining that the emotion and direction of progress come not from elected officials, but from grass-roots movements. "John Kennedy did not inspire us to civil rights," he said. "We sat in and marched. We inspired him. We had the passion. He had the priorities."
Jackson's message and candidacy has been refreshingly candid. He has consistently refused to pander to our baser instincts of apathy and greed. Instead he has solemnly asked that we accept responsibility and take a pivotal role in determining the course of our nation's future. By doing so, he has inspired hope and initiated action. His role--and the role of youth--in America's political process will be greater because of it.