The full exposure of Rev. Jesse Jackson's civil-rights crusade
for what it is — an extortion racket — has to be one of the most
welcome developments of this or any other year. Yet it is paying
off in another way: the sudden rise in stature of the National
Enquirer. Yes, that sultan of supermarket sludge is strutting
mighty tall these days. What kind of newspaper this side of Fleet
Street would have the cojones to reveal that lawyer Hugh
Rodham, brother of former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, bagged
$400,000 in legal fees to provide the groundwork for her husband's
issuance of last-day presidential pardons? The same kind of paper,
in two separate cover stories this year, that would reveal Jesse
Jackson had sired a love child with an academic groupie, and then
paid her to relocate and keep quiet, that's what kind.
The recent travails of Rev. Jackson present an opportunity to count
the blessings of gossip. I don't mean just the printed word either.
For gossip in any medium just may be the great unsung engine of
liberty. But a good deal of context is first necessary.
The National Enquirer a couple months ago broke the
news that Jackson had arranged a payment of $35,000 to cover relocation
and living expenses of mistress/acolyte Karin Stanford. Apparently,
Ms. Stanford had approached Jackson in relation to researching her
doctoral dissertation topic, Jackson's influence on U.S. foreign
policy. That Jackson has had an influence is itself a scandal, but
let us focus on the juicy stuff, please. Jesse long has had a reputation
as being available to women other than his wife. More than two decades
ago it was a pretty open secret that he and singer-songwriter Roberta
("Killing Me Softly") Flack had been regularly getting
Old habits were hard to break. Jackson and Ms. Stanford commenced
an affair within a few months, and eventually Jesse in 1997 asked
her to head his Washington office. By the following March, Stanford
informed Jesse she was pregnant with his child. Livid, Jesse ordered
her to get an abortion — which she did, as she had to undergo chemotherapy
treatments for breast cancer anyway. Five months later Karin was
pregnant again with his love child, and this time she chose to give
birth (she ascertained Rev. Jackson's paternity by secretly saving
a sample of his sperm for a DNA test — very resourceful!). Rumors
of the affair reached Jesse's wife, Jackie, who, less than happy,
pointed a gun at him. Sufficiently warned, Jesse paid Ms. Stanford
in the fall of 1999 to relocate to California. The full payoff figure
turned out to be $450,000; the $35,000 initially reported was the
portion that came from the coffers of a Jackson-friendly labor union,
the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.
Jackson hasn't challenged the veracity of any of this. But he's
working on the assumption that the less the affair comes up in conversation,
the more likely people will block it out of mind. That career move
has worked, at least in the upper reaches of the chattering classes.
Jackson received a hero's welcome on a recent visit to Wall Street,
and CNN informed him he could have his talk show back any time he
wants. His overt admirers — and they are a hardy bunch — have written
off the revelations as mere gossip. Very well, consider the virtues
At its simplest level gossip is any conversation of a personal
nature about someone else not present. Typically, this has negative
connotations. People who gossip, humorless moralists constantly
admonish us, are shallow, and lack in decency and fortitude in the
act of "talking behind someone else's back." The Talmud
warns against idle gossip (as opposed to what — working gossip?),
as sound a reason as any to engage in it, as far as I'm concerned.
More broadly, gossip is any communication of information between
two or more people, written or verbal, about things that could affect
another person's reputation. Gossip may be false, whether deliberately
or not, in which case the subject of the gossip has every right
to confront the source and offer a clarification, demand an apology
or file a lawsuit. But as an antidote to gossip's excesses that
we engage in self-censorship would give far more carte blanche to
thugs and charlatans. That the Enquirer pays tipsters does
not undermine the truth of its articles; au contraire, more
likely it induces those who know private truths to reveal them.
Celebrity gossip, of course, is what most readers crave. Subjecting
entertainment figures to gossip is a mixed blessing. It can be delicious
fun, but in its own voyeuristic way it also can irritate the hell
out of people who have the right to expect a little privacy. Somehow
I gather if you were going through the kind of divorce that Tom
Cruise and Nicole Kidman are facing, you wouldn't want the great
multitudes poring over your bedtime secrets either.
The real virtues of gossip, at least in its printed form, can be
best appreciated in the political realm, where tyrants like Jesse
Jackson take nearly for granted their aura of infallibility. For
unlike President Clinton's sexual escapades, the revelation of Jackson's
provides entrée into a long pattern of irregularities in
raising and spending money, and at the expense of the most productive
members of our society. Removing Jackson from his informal "office"
would do a lot more good for this country than removing Clinton
ever would have.
Reverend Jackson's shady financial doings were known long before
the Enquirer got into the act. In 1971 Jackson's rival for
leadership at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Rev.
Ralph Abernathy, ordered an investigation into the finances of a
"Black Expo" convention Jackson had organized. Though
the inquiry revealed serious financial mismanagement, resulting
in Jackson's suspension for a few months, later that year Jackson
split from the SCLC to form Operation PUSH. Taking his adoring followers,
he went about building an empire. In the late 70s and early 80s
Jackson received about $4.9 million in federal money and $4.2 million
in private donations for PUSH/Excel, a project he'd started to raise
self-esteem among inner-city kids. Yet a series of consultant's
evaluations for the federal government released in the early 80s
(led, by the way, by a not-yet-famous Charles Murray) revealed that
the program, to the extent the data could yield any conclusions
at all, had an insignificant effect on academic performance. What's
more, federal auditors separately concluded that of the nearly $5
million Jackson received in federal funds, $866,713 had been misspent
and another $1,302,951 had been "questionably" spent.
Yet the government made no accusations of legal wrongdoing, and
sought instead to work out a repayment schedule with Jackson and
other PUSH/Excel officials.
By 1982 federal involvement in PUSH/Excel was pretty much over,
especially with Reagan now in the White House. Jackson responded
by focusing more attention than ever on cultivating relationships
with business. Alternately bullying and snuggling up to publicity-conscious
corporate officials, Jackson has managed to receive large sums of
money from various companies.
This year the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times
and the Los Angeles Times each published exposes on
Jackson's method of bankrolling his activities. It would appear
he has perfected a three-step plan: 1) target an allegedly racist
company for a potential boycott or negative publicity; 2) extract
a cash "donation" from the company to one or more of his
organizations to keep the peace; and 3) publicly congratulate the
company for its positive commitment to diversity. Through the proceeds
from such companies as Ameritech, AT&T, Boeing, Pepsi Bottling
Group and Viacom, Jackson has been able to fund a perpetual affirmative-action
campaign. The few executives who have refused to play along, like
Cypress Semiconductor's T.J. Rodgers (a Randian, at that), have
found themselves the targets of Jackson's wrath. Jackson and his
people operate a lot like a mobster protection racket, except they
try to break careers instead of legs.
Once Jesse receives his money, he doesn't like anyone poking around
as to how he spends it. In his 1988 book, Jesse Jackson &
the Politics of Charisma, Ernest R. House summarized Jackson's
idea of accountability in action:
"…PUSH encountered legal difficulties several times, usually
because of careless bookkeeping. Finances were kept entirely
secret; they simply were not anybody else's business, in the
view of PUSH leaders. Neither were criticism and dissent welcomed
inside this autocratic structure. Critics were soundly denounced,
and Jackson used his influence to curtail reporters who were
critical of his work…"
In this light Jackson's hush money to Karin Stanford years later
was an accident waiting to happen. But all the while, despite Jackson's
widely known credibility problem, how has he managed to exact more
corporate tribute than ever? How does he continue to jet around
the country in high style, spending a reported $614,000 on personal
travel in 2000 alone?
The source of Jackson's power, as House explains, is his charisma.
Charismatic authority derives far less from holding formal office
than from displaying personal traits that project a nearly superhuman
quality. The charismatic leader succeeds in getting followers to
see in him things they want to see rather than things they
actually do see. At his worst, such a leader, through carefully
stage-managed gestures, can coax unconditional loyalty and compliance.
Even if exposed as inhuman (to say nothing of "only human"),
the leader is adroit in creating the illusion that his accusers,
vengeful lesser beings all, are "persecuting" him.
Jesse Jackson, unlike his accusers, has charisma to spare. No policy
analyst or journalist, however damning the revelations, can match
Jackson's facility with rhyme, Biblical metaphor, and moral urgency.
None of his critics have his gift for alternately hectoring and
inspiring. Remember how many white delegates at the 1984
Democratic national convention in San Francisco were literally reduced
to tears following Jackson's speech? His potential opponents know
all too well his power to mobilize a crowd in his favor. That's
why most CEOs and other natural enemies may privately seethe, but
eventually they cave into Jackson's demands. They are scared,
dudes. Minus an event or accusation so powerful as to trigger a
backlash, or at least some skepticism, among followers, charismatic
leaders of this sort are nearly unstoppable.
But, ah, something does exist to throw the charisma of the corrupt
for a loop. Call it counter-charisma, an unflappably hot style of
crusading that revels in toppling the high and mighty from their
perches with bombshell revelations. Let's call that something gossip.
That's right — raw, lurid, sexy, steamy, sensational, catty, chatty
gossip, the kind that glories in shocking as many people as possible.
Without discounting the necessity of mainstream investigative journalism,
the Enquirer has dimmed Jackson's aura of infallibility to
an extent that the other newspapers, by their nature, could not.
Admit it, isn't it a comfort to know that hundreds of millions
of Americans, including many who wouldn't dream of paying $1.89
for a newsstand copy of the Enquirer, are now aware of just
how sleazy Rev. Jackson and his cronies have been all along? Don't
you get a nice glow knowing that this sanctimonious extortionist
is less popular than ever, at least among those smart enough to
be wary of him in the first place? His social reputation damaged
(though regrettably not beyond repair), Jackson will find mobilizing
a boycott or lawsuit against innocent prey less inviting. CEOs with
weak knees and deep pockets, aware of this, may be less likely to
Lest we get carried away with the positive functions of gossip,
let us admit it is a mixed blessing. It can and does appeal to those
of low intellect and extreme malice. And an endless diet of articles
with titles on the order of "Jodie Foster in Sizzling Lesbian
Love Triangle," and "Eddie Murphy Flees Alien Abductors"
won't bring anyone to the palace of wisdom. But to write off gossip,
whether believable or not, as nothing but coarse titillation misses
a key point: Gossip, or more accurately the fear of its damage
to our reputations, forces us to walk a straight and narrow path,
and just as important, weakens the ability of the worst to get on
top. Thanks to our fully exercised freedom to gossip, prominent
anti-market extortionists like Jesse Jackson now will have to walk
Personally, I can't wait to see what the tabloids are going to
dish up on Rev. Al Sharpton.
Suggested reading: Dave Shiflett, "The Enquirer Way,"
The American Spectator, April 2001, p. 98; Noah Oppenheim,
"Follow the Money," The Weekly Standard, April
2, 2001, pp. 22-25; Patricia Shipp, Richard Gooding, Mike Hanrahan,
"Jesse's Mistress Tells All," National Enquirer,
April 10, 2001, pp. 36-37, 41; Ernest R. House, Jesse
Jackson & the Politics of Charisma: The Rise and Fall of the
PUSH/Excel Program, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988.
F. Horowitz formerly served as a policy analyst with the Heritage
Foundation and as a Washington correspondent for Investor's
Business Daily. He is currently a Washington, D.C.-area consultant.