His age, induction into the Democratic Party establishment, his son’s career, and of course the election of the nation’s first Black president (I love typing that) have diminished his stature, but Jesse Jackson used to be a serious firebrand, a vocal social democrat.
Forgetting his ideology, though, I propose to you that Jesse Jackson is the most talented and electrifying speaker of my lifetime (1980s to present). President Obama can give a great speech, but as a performer, in terms of pure rhetorical skill, Jackson as it.
This is who Jesse Jackson was:
Watch his response, and emotional and physical reaction, to his own rhetorical question, “What do blacks know about foreign policy?” It’s immensely powerful as rhetoric. Who is another politician of Jackson’s profile (one of the most prominent politicians at the time) who can give a speech like this?
His 1988 speech to the DNC is still my favorite political speech of my lifetime, its principles largely harmonious with mine and stated with such unapologetic, assured vigor. But more than that, note how he weaves personal stories and direct appeals across a deceptively detailed policy program, all the while mixing high-brow references with folksy explanations. I’m not saying anything about how convincing a case he makes or the depth of his policy knowledge. Obviously he’s not particularly sympathetic to opposing arguments. Good.
He does use a lot of his little gimmicky catchphrases, which I could do without, and he also takes a weirdly gratuitous jab at Nancy Reagan for some reason. Still, it’s 50 minutes. Watch the whole thing.