Jesse Jackson Jr., Breaking The Mold With Obama

One of Barack Obama's staunchest defenders has been U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. He has stepped up for Obama even when that meant publicly chastising his own father. Now, as Obama takes center stage at the Democratic National Convention, the congressman is not too far behind as part of the new generation of black political leaders.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

At the opening of the Democratic Convention last night, most of the headliners' speeches were carefully scripted to portray a unified party and an all-American nominee. Michelle Obama painted a portrait of a loving, normal dad who, a few years ago, drove carefully as he took his wife and first baby girl home from the hospital.

MONTAGNE: There were tough speeches, too. Many Democratic leaders used their moment in the spotlight to criticize the Republican presidential contender. Here's Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): I know this son of a single mom will stand up for the dreams of our daughters, and I know that John McCain won't.

MONTAGNE: Among those congressmen who focused on the positives of their own nominee was Jesse Jackson, Jr. He spoke of Barack Obama's earlier years, and he emphasized their shared roots in Chicago. NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. is no novice when it comes to the national convention stage.

Representative JESSE JACKSON, JR. (Democrat, Illinois): My father is an (unintelligible), the next president of the United States, our dad, Jesse Jackson.

CORNISH: He's introducing his father at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta. Jackson has stood up for many Democratic nominees, but not since speaking for his father has he moved the crowd the way he did for Barack Obama last night.

Rep. JACKSON: I'm sure that Dr. King is looking down on us here in Denver, noting this is the first political convention in history to take place within sight of a mountaintop.

CORNISH: I caught up with the junior Jackson during his Denver speech rehearsal, where he said he's proud to be Obama's staunchest defender, even if that's meant speaking out against his famous father.

Rep. JACKSON: I love my dad. We go back and forth, and we agree, we disagree. More often than not, those disagreements never boil over into the public discourse.

CORNISH: But one of those disagreements did. It happened last month when Reverend Jackson was caught making crude remarks about Obama into an open microphone. The off-the-cuff moment betrayed his concerns about Obama's approach to black voters.

In his statement, Congressman Jackson, Jr. said the reverend should keep hope alive and personal attacks and insults to himself. Of course, Jackson, Jr. knows the language of Reverend Jackson inside and out. He spent his 21st birthday in jail with his dad, protesting South African apartheid.

He spent his early years in politics, expanding outreach as a field director for his father's RainbowPUSH Coalition. But when Jackson, Jr. and Barack Obama crossed paths in Chicago's community organizing scene, Jackson, Jr. says he knew he'd met a kindred spirit.

Rep. JACKSON: Barack and I were the two new kids on the block. We were of a different generation, a different mindset on what it takes to build coalitions. Barack and I really were the first two guys in Chicago who kind of broke the mold and said no, we think we can do this.

CORNISH: That mold, Jackson, Jr., says, took shape during his father's generation and had its roots in the black church. Today, black politicians such as Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and, of course, Barack Obama, have sprung from tony prep schools or Ivy League universities.

Jackson, Jr. did go to a fancy D.C. high school, but he attended his dad's alma mater, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Like his father, Jackson, Jr. went to seminary, but later added a law degree. Jackson says he straddles both worlds.

Rep. JACKSON: I think I am the bridge, in fact. My biggest concern is that I may be the only bridge between a new generation of young African-American politicians and those who have historically fought to make this possible. Many of them are beneficiaries of the work, but their politics don't necessarily reflect the needs of the urban poor or the rural farm-worker who's been left behind.

CORNISH: And Congressman Jackson, Jr. says the difference between these two generations is not just style, but…

Rep. JACKSON: Accountability. The mistakes that I make or the judgments that I pass are subject to reconsideration by the people every two years. And that's a fundamentally dynamic than, let's say, a pastor and his parishioner, the traditional and historic model of leadership in the African-American community.

CORNISH: Congressman Jackson says his father's generation ran the protest campaigns of earlier decades that gradually changed the party's system for choosing delegates and made the candidacy of Barack Obama possible.

Rep. JACKSON: This is one long struggle that has different people carrying the baton, different people carrying their leg of this relay race. And so I'm just grateful for the opportunity to do my part.

CORNISH: Some have suggested that Congressman Jackson's part could change soon if Barack Obama's seat in the senate should become vacant after the election in November. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Denver.

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