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Jesse Jackson in Cuba - 29 June 1984

I am one of those journalists who finds it hard to throw anything away.

The result is preposterous to anyone who dares to peek inside our apartment's many closets, where books and magazines and files, never looked at, and old slippers and golf shoes and even the stubs of theatre tickets of long ago, are stacked or balanced so precariously that it’s not worth even trying to dislodge a paper, let alone a book. The resulting earthquake would certainly bring the neighbours running.

But let me tell you that this ocean of flotsam does not flow out into what you might call the public highways of the apartment, my study, too, where I live, and breath and exercise my so-called brain, is also a mess until about six in the evening where I cease picking away on the old banjolele and begin the nightly clean-up. Sometimes it gets so bad that I have about five minutes to shovel the papers and notes and news magazines and memos into the one study closet and jam the door against a possible landslide from that interior.

So, when the guests arrive, they see a neat, cool and, I like to think, elegant small library with one sharp light focused on the potchean and the neighbouring ice bucket. So this lamentable flaw in my character – "If only you had a system," my father used to say – this glaring absence of a system is known only to my closest and dearest. So much so that, years ago, when a ten-year-old friend of my sons came to visit, he’d evidently been warned about the sewage dump he was about to see. He came in, looked around, and said, "but Steven told me you were a secret slob".

"That's right," I said, and left him to figure out the discrepancy between the things seen and the chaos unseen. Well, from time to time, usually at the beginning of the summer, I decide to reform and shuffle through masses of papers and loads of unanswered correspondence from, say, 1972. The one great advantage of this system, and lack of same, is that occasionally precious needles or nuggets of information slip out of the haystack. And the other morning, as if obeying some law of extrasensory perception, a piece of brown paper, once white, fell at my feet. It was full of hasty hieroglyphics – plainly notes on a speech. "Add FDR," it said, "the presidential speech" and it said, quote, "but all debates and dissent about foreign policy stops at the water’s edge".

What so extrasensory about that? Well, it would be hard to find a quotation from Roosevelt, or any other president, more apt to something that happened this week which shocked the Washington old-timers, and a large number of the members of both houses, but I am afraid will not shock millions of Americans who have never heard of, or noticed the old and once inviolable tradition to which all American politicians – however mad at the incumbent administration – deferred. You being, say, a senator, might thunder away at the Senate floor about the sins and idiocies of the president’s foreign policy, but whenever you went abroad you did not publicly criticise your own country on that count.

Roosevelt’s most fervent enemies – and he surely had many in the Congress – when tapped by foreign reporters gave the standard reply, "I am sorry, but our differences on foreign policy stop at the water’s edge." The water’s edge, you understand, being the shores of the Potomac River or the docks of New York.

Now, there is one very big American politician – indeed, the leading black politician of the United States – who was never told about this usage, this tradition, or scorns to pay attention to it.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson went off this week as a one-man state department or his own foreign secretary, to El Salvador and Cuba. When any congressman or senator, or presidential candidate wants to go abroad on what they call a fact-finding mission, he is automatically briefed by the appropriate desk of the state department as a routine courtesy, no matter who was in the White House.

The Reverend Jackson sought his own channels, corresponding directly with President Duarte of El Salvador, and with Fidel Castro of Cuba. Nobody – no official, you understand – sent Mr Jackson, he went to speak only for himself. Before he landed in El Salvador he met, in Panama, four representatives of the Salvadorian revolutionary front, the men fighting against President Duarte’s government. He then hopped to San Salvador and told President Duarte that the rebels want peace. President Duarte not a little startled by this unappointed foreign envoy, told Mr Jackson that he had taken his stand and he would hold to it, he would not hold talks with the rebels under the barrel of a gun.

So, on to Cuba. At the Havana airport, the Reverend Jackson was greeted as if he had been a head of state, as if he were Mr Reagan – he was greeted by none other than Fidel Castro himself. Who, said the Reverend Jackson, honours us with his presence. No wonder, at the first stop in Panama, Mr Jackson ingratiated himself with... I should guess millions of central Americans, by denouncing his own country's – quote – "cycle of arrogance". He was seen on our television in warm conversation and laughter with Castro, being treated everywhere as if he were already president of the United States.

So, what’s wrong with the presidential candidate feeling out opinion and learning the grievances that these countries have against his own? Nothing surely, but Mr Jackson was not there simply to learn and listen and digest, he was there to negotiate. He advocated a new relationship with the United States and the opening-up of diplomatic relations again. He presented a list of 45 names of Cuban and American nationals who were being held as prisoners by Castro, and he asked for their release. He got the American names not from the state department, but from a friend in New York who runs an outfit dedicated to getting these political prisoners out of Cuba.

When it appeared – to the delight of Mr Jackson and his small entourage, and to the obvious embarrassment of the White House – that Castro was not only sympathetic to release the Americans, but might do it now, President Reagan’s press man limply announced that the administration would do everything possible to assist them. Too late, Mr Jackson had done it. Castro said the 22 Americans would return to the United States with the Reverend Jackson.

Now you will recall that in December, Mr Jackson, again on his own, went to the Middle East and got Syria to release a black American lieutenant who’s plane had been brought down in Lebanon. It seemed a small thing to negotiate the release of one man, but the president and the state department had not been able to do it. And the Reverend Jackson returned to the United States like Pompey entering Rome in triumph.

That's the way he looked to millions of blacks, and it was from that moment that his presidential campaign took fire, and was taken seriously by the other hopefuls. And, as we all know, while five other considerable contenders fell by the wayside in the Democratic primary elections, Jesse Jackson emerged as one of the surviving democratic trio – Mundale, Hart and Jackson.

Now, to his legion of followers he will look a bigger man than ever, "Old Jesse goes some place and says give us back our political prisoners. And even the mighty Fidel says, yes sir, Mr Jackson sir." It will not occur, I think, to these passionate and sincere followers that the Salvadorian rebels and Castro are of course delighted to enjoy and exploit the actual novelty of an American politician of national standing who goes abroad to deride his own country and his policy, and suggests that he is their one true American friend?

I think it’s even doubtful that the Reverend Jackson himself knows what he’s doing. The embarrassment. The actual indignation in Washington over his mission is not prompted by a simple ignoring of protocol – the United States has had, for a long time, an actual act of Congress which specifically forbids private citizens, unless they are recruited by the president, to negotiate with foreign governments. If Mr Jackson had failed to get any prisoners released it is conceivable that his violation of the Logan Act would be brought up on the floor of Congress. And it may still come to that, but the official protests would have no more effect on Mr Jackson’s behaviour, or on the adoration of his fans, than the head shaking of a Wimbledon umpire over John McEnroe’s violation of the rules.

The brutal truth is that in one case, the violation of an act of Congress, in the other a series of tantrums, they work, and the 22 prisoners, home-bound with Mr Jackson, are his sure guarantee against a citation for contempt of Congress, against even any effective protest from the administration. The administration had dickered and negotiated for many months and failed. Mr Jackson goes down, he initiates a rollicking friendship with Fidel Castro, and, hey presto, the prisoners are on their way home. It’s a very small price that Castro has to pay for helping to advertise among his people, and other central American peoples, the fact that here is an actual candidate for the presidency of the United States, who is as much against the Central American policies of the detested Reagan as they are.

Once the shock and the jubilation cools off it must surely become plain, even to some of the Reverend Jackson's followers, that he was used, a patsy, and that the way to better relations between any or all of those embattled countries and the next American administration has been made all the harder.

Certainly to the innocent applauding masses of Central America who see a black man – it would be more pointed to use the old word, coloured man – who see such a one, and a distinguished American at that, embracing Salvadorian rebels and the ruler of Cuba with whom the United States has no relations. Certainly they are bound to feel that, given time and a little more racial upheaval in the United States, Jesse Jackson or a man like him will come to power.

Of course, he won’t. But he has raised the hopes and dizzy feelings of his followers so high that after November there could be a despairing down. And the possibility of a frightening backlash; a black lash, rather.

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