Spring 2001, Vol. 4, No. 1

Spring 2001

Related Articles:

"A Civil Religious Affair", Religion in the News, Spring 1999

"Race and Disgrace", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Where Preachers Fear to Tread", Religion in the News, Summer 1998

Other articles
in this issue:

From the Editor:
Sacred is as Sacred Does

Palestinians and Israelis:
Rites of Return

Palestinians and Israelis:
Oh, Jerusalem!

Faith-Based Ambivalence

Ten Issues to Keep an Eye On

What Would Moses Do?:
Debt Relief in the Jubilee Year

Faith in Justice:
The Ashcroft Fight

Aum Alone

Left Behind at the Box Office

The Voucher Circus

Puffing Exorcism


































Hide, Jesse, Hide
by William K. Piotrowski

baby_gif.gif (13928 bytes)"It began as a ‘cloak-and-dagger’ affair, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Karin Stanford quietly traveling together and slipping into each others’ hotel rooms," Bryan Smith of the Chicago Sun-Times reported January 19, a day after the story of Jackson’s love child broke. "In time, it became an ‘open secret’ within the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition."

As Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Globe wrote a week later, it was something of an open secret within the mainstream press as well. Chicago Tribune Washington bureau chief James Warren told Jurkawitz he first heard the story a year earlier. "I made a whole bunch of calls and couldn’t confirm it to my satisfaction," Warren said.

Had he been able to, would the Tribune have broken the story? We’ll never know. This scoop belonged to the National Enquirer, the nonpareil supermarket tab with the resources and moxie to legitimize the illegitimate.

Jackson himself responded instantaneously. "This is no time for evasions, denials or alibis," he said in a public statement. "I fully accept responsibility, and I am truly sorry for my actions." Saying that he loved his little daughter "very much," he announced that he had also accepted responsibility "for her emotional and financial support."

Armed with the Enquirer’s leg work and Jackson’s admission, the New York Daily News’ Dave Saltonstall led the mainstream press into this most recent revelation of a moral leader’s clay feet: Yep, Jesse Jackson had indeed fathered an out-of-wedlock child with the 39-year-old former director of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition Washington office in May 1999. Now the "open secret" was no kind of secret at all, and the predictable media firestorm ensued.

The chasm that this admission appeared to open between Jackson words and Jackson deeds created the opportunity for an editorial lynching—and there was no shortage of those who seized it. For more than a week, opinion writers, op-edifying professors, and ordinary citizens filled news and editorial columns across the nation with their moral assessments. After toting up the reams of copy, it can fairly be said that accusations of hypocrisy outweighed all other reactions by roughly 2 to 1.

"Jackson’s claim to leadership is gone," pronounced the Boston Herald January 19. "It is time for him to leave the stage and leave the job to those with the moral authority and the real devotion to community to accomplish it." The Sun-Times also joined the no-mercy bandwagon: "Jackson has held others to the highest and most stringent standards, delivering his judgments often in harsh and very memorable phrases. Having been on the receiving end of his wrath, we know how uncompromising and unforgiving Jackson can be in his judgments. Now it is obvious Jackson has not lived up to the high standards he insisted upon for others."

Wrote syndicated columnist Clarence Page, "First to evaporate is Jackson’s credibility as a moral icon and role model for young people. School principals, for example, will think twice before inviting him to address their students." Or as Harlem resident Maxine Jones told the Daily News, "He sits up there talking about wearing a condom and abstinence and he’s doing worse than the teenagers. I’m so disappointed."

What gave this tale of hypocrisy its special piquancy was Jackson’s role as spiritual advisor to the First Family after President Clinton fessed up to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in August 1998. For those counting months, it quickly became apparent that Jackson fille was conceived at just about the time Jackson père was counseling the Clintons and telling the media how the president had caused his family "disappointment, embarrassment, shame."

Indeed, the Enquirer published a photo of Jackson and the pregnant Stanford visiting with Clinton in the Oval Office prior to his impeachment trial.

"The cleric’s defense of Clinton was part of the web of deception that surrounded the president," huffed conservative pundit Cal Thomas in a January 19 column. "It showed that even while Jackson was engaged in the very activity in which Clinton busied himself, he was willing to mortgage whatever credibility he had and heap shame on the God he was supposed to be serving in order to provide spiritual cover for Clinton."

To be sure, there were voices raised in support of Jackson—especially from politicians, who knew whereof they spoke. And for her part, Sun-Times columnist Mary A. Mitchell spread the burden of guilt around: "Now people are debating whether Jackson is a hypocrite. If he is, then we all are hypocrites. We created an image of Jackson that was never quite true. Jackson didn’t appoint himself a moral leader. We did, even though we were aware of his shortcomings."

But this was definitely the minority view. Hypocrisy, said La Rochefoucald, is the homage vice pays to virtue. And when vice is a prominent religious leader, it’s an homage the news media never tire of piling on.

Related Articles:

"A Civil Religious Affair", Religion in the News, Spring 1999

"Race and Disgrace", Religion in the News, Fall 1998

"Where Preachers Fear to Tread", Religion in the News, Summer 1998