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Illinois Issues Summer Book Section

Analysis of Jackson and PUSH-Excel falls short


Ernest R. House. Jesse Jackson and the Politics of Charisma:
The Rise and Fall of the PUSH-Excel Program.
Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press Inc., 1988.
Pp. 196 with index. $23.95 (cloth).

Following the political activities of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom Ernest House calls "the most controversial man in America," has become national pastime. House's analysis of Jackson's press coverage shows that he is variously described as "spellbinding, relentless, ruthless, unpredictable, arrogant and a threat." House himself calls Jackson "charismatic."

According to House, Jackson's charisma is both a blessing and a curse. House portrays Jackson as a man dedicated to eliminating poverty and injustice, yet flawed by the very traits that have given him the national platform to articulate these concerns — that is, charisma and the politics of charismatic leadership.

For House, the way to measure Jackson's ability to conceive and implement national policy is to examine his PUSH-Excel program. The inherent difficulty in using this measure is revealed in House's failure to understand the nature of African-American movement politics. Since PUSH-Excel was born out of Operation PUSH, its evaluation is colored by one's feelings towards the civil rights movement.

While House admits Jackson's evolving adaptability and growth, he is nevertheless portrayed here as one-dimensional. The book covers the period 1975-1988 and concentrates on Jackson's development from the infancy of Operation PUSH through his presidential campaigns. Yet, House does not view PUSH-Excel as crucial to Jackson's emergence nationally. To examine him at this stage of his career without acknowledging his subsequent progress is myopic at best and unfair at worst.

The author's assessment of Jackson's rhetorical style as threatening to whites, while adulated by blacks, is probably correct. That style gained him national attention, but it also caused many whites to complain that Jackson had overstepped the traditional role of the black minister-leader, who is supposed to confine his commentary to areas clearly recognized as African-American.

As a former consultant to PUSH-Excel just before the 1984 presidential campaign, I am keenly aware of the Reagan administration's efforts to discredit this program and any other remnants of the civil rights era. Jackson symbolized that period and its politics at the same time that Reagan delivered on his campaign promise to dismantle such policies and programs in place since 1965. This systematic reversal made the "failure" of PUSH-Excel inevitable. Thus PUSH-Excel alone cannot be viewed as the true measure of Jackson's administrative ability.

Already the target of criticism late in the Carter administration, PUSH-Excel became the prime example cited to prove that African Americans were worse — not better — off as a result of the "war on poverty." As outlined in Charles Murray's Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, according to this logic, the poor are incapable of deriving long-term benefits from governmental incentives, while the middle class and the rich not only absorb these incentives but also advance society because of them.

When Jackson emerged as the major anti-Reagan spokesman, the administration sought to discredit him and his most visible program to that point, PUSH-Excel. As "point man" in the fight against Reaganism and Reaganomics, Jackson ran for president in 1984 in part to defend the gains of the civil rights era. Subsequent controversies over his Middle East trip and his association with Minister Louis Farrakhan only fueled the drive to bring down PUSH-Excel and derail Jackson's presidential ambitions.

Besides ignoring the tension between these two competing political philosophies,

July 1989 | Illinois Issues | 27

A full and fair evaluation
of PUSH-Excel must ask
whether it raised the
educational efficacy of
African Americans

House is negligent in two other areas: 1) he fails to contextualize Jackson's critique of the education given to African-American children within the ongoing debate on education eventually taken up by former Secy. of Education William Bennett; and 2) he ignores the overall impact of PUSH-Excel on African-American educational efficacy. Jackson was the first national figure to sound the alarm concerning drug abuse in the public schools. He was the first to call for bonding parents to schools by report card pick-ups and conferences with teachers. He emphasized that African-American students had to be serious about pursuing an education; parents had to insist that schools live up to their responsibility to educate; and communities had to invest in their future by investing in their children's education.

House acknowledges the logic of this approach without locating it at the center of Jackson's political evolution. It was essential for Jackson to address these problems as they related to African Americans before he could take on national concerns. "By 1988 he had reached this point.

A full and fair evaluation of PUSH-Excel must ask whether it raised the educational efficacy of African Americans. House agrees that the program raised their expectations, which in turn fueled demands for better performances by school systems. African-American parents campaigned for school reform across the nation. Report card pick-up and parent-teacher conferences have become requirements in many school systems. The adopt-a-school program has become a permanent feature in almost every major school system. These programs resulted from PUSH-Excel initiatives. Furthermore, Jesse Jackson and PUSH-Excel served as harbingers for the broader social criticism of public education that was to come.

If House had not written this book, someone else would have. The only question, then, is what methodology would be used and what aspect of Jackson's work would become the unit of analysis. The choice of PUSH-Excel is predictable since it was the broadest and most visible of Jackson's initiatives on the eve of the 1984 presidential campaign. The point of this review is not to take issue with the unit of analysis, but rather with the methodology, the conclusions, and the application of the conclusions to the overall assessment of Jackson.

The book's strength is the author's analysis of charismatic politics in modern America. Jesse Jackson is a charismatic politician of national stature; yet House links the failure of PUSH-Excel to the limitations of Jackson's charismatic politics while omitting an analysis of the Reagan effect. House's analysis proves that the program could have failed under anyone. Charisma aside, the politics of reversal ended funding for such programs and discredited their leadership. House's book deserves attention for its presentation of the politics of education to which PUSH-Excel fell victim. □

Robert T. Starks is associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University's Center for Inner City Studies in Chicago. He served as an issues adviser to Mayor Harold Washington and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He is working on a book about the mayoral years of Harold Washington.

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