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Jewish World Review March 28, 2001 / 4 Nissan 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

Following the Reverend's Revenue -- SEVERAL years ago, when Jesse Jackson was toying with the idea of running for mayor of Washington, the incumbent, the indefatigable Marion Barry, dismissed such talk with a tart declaration: "Jesse's never run anything except his mouth."

I have to say that Mayor Barry was only half-right. What he meant, of course, is that the Reverend Jackson is too accustomed to his status as a civil rights celebrity to risk his reputation by holding public office. It is one thing to march on picket lines or hold press conferences; it is quite another to assume a civic responsibility, accountable for failures and answerable to voters.

It is not correct, however, to say that the Reverend Jackson has never run anything. In fact, over the decades, he has become quite adept at running the Chicago-based Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, his tax-exempt home base, which has yielded a number of allied organizations, and earned a lot of cash for his efforts: $17 million last year alone.

One of my favorite pastimes is seeking to determine exactly what certain organizations do with their money. Some, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, on the Left, or the Free Congress Foundation, on the Right, are unusually adept at raising funds through direct-mail solicitation, or gaining publicity at opportune moments. But apart from keeping themselves in business by raising more funds to keep themselves in business, it is not easy to discern exactly how Congress has been freed, or Southern poverty alleviated, through their efforts.

Now, at long last, my quest to understand what, if anything, Rainbow/PUSH does has gotten a major boost. The Washington Post, no enemy of Jesse Jackson, has begun examining the Reverend's ledger and daily schedul, and the picture it has drawn thus far is troubling, to use a polite term. "Jackson's fundraising methods spur questions," was the headline of a front-page story this week in the Post.

The spectacle of Jesse Jackson has tended to hypnotize journalistic institutions such as the Post, which knows he is a "civil rights leader" and dutifully covers his well-publicized adventures. But when the National Enquirer recently revealed that the Reverend Jackson had fathered an illegitimate child by a young staffer, and then used cash from his tax-exempt Citizenship Education Fund to move his mistress to Los Angeles and set her up in style, even the Post had to take notice.

The first move, of course, was made by Jesse Jackson's detractors. Two right-wing organizations have filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service, accusing the Reverend Jackson of using charitable funds for personal purposes (paying off his mistress) and betraying the Citizenship Education Fund's tax-exempt status by (quoting the Post here) "extracting money from corporations and, in effect, providing them with a business service for a fee." This is a polite way of saying -- in the words of Gerald Reynolds, a black lawyer in Kansas City associated with the Center for New Black Leadership in Washington -- that the Reverend Jackson is a "hustler" and "charlatan ... who plays on white executives' fear of racial controversy," as the Post describes it.

The Reverend Jackson's method is supremely clever: When corporations are most vulnerable -- seeking federal approval for mergers, or battling charges of racial discrimination -- he will insert himself in the picture, threatening boycotts and making public accusations of racism unless the companies send substantial contributions to the Citizenship Education Fund, or award lucrative contracts to Jackson friends and associates.

By such means, Jesse Jackson has not only extracted tens of millions of dollars in donations from such corporate behemoths as CBS, Viacom, Ameritech ad Citicorp, but he has made certain that his boycott threats are answered by the award of contracts and partnerships to Rainbow/PUSH associates or business friends who serve on his various boards. Once the targeted companies endow Rainbow/PUSH, the Reverend Jackson customarily loses interest in the issue at hand, and moves on to the next customer.

Two questions arise. First, what happens to the cash that such tough-as-nails executives as Sanford Weill or Philip Condit contribute to the Citizenship Education Fund? There is little evidence that it is used for much more than maintaining Rainbow/PUSH, or worse, keeping the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his family in comfort. And second, what is the difference between the Reverend Jackson's fund-raising technique on behalf of the Citizenship Education Fund, and what the law calls extortion? The fact that businessmen are frightened by bad publicity is not news. But it is news when a "civil rights leader" makes threats, and those threats disappear when money changes hands.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal