Robert Strauss or Minister Farrakhan: Who Will Reverend Jackson Choose?
This weekend's Democratic Party "rebuke" of Minister Farrakhan is just the latest chapter in a 16-year saga that has seen the Democratic Party successful in its attempt to isolate Black political leadership from any form of partnership with the leader of the Nation of Islam. Central to this drama has been the role played by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who the media and Democratic Party will now attempt to pit against the Minister in an effort to silence any critique, legitimate or not, coming from the Minister in particular, or the Black community in general, against the Gore-Lieberman ticket. Rev. Jackson, if the Democratic Party gets its way, is now supposed to "repudiate" Minister Farrakhan, defend Sen. Lieberman from any legitimate criticism or questions that Min. Farrakhan may have for a Gore-Lieberman ticket and slow down any momentum that Min. Farrakhan may be generating in his efforts to get the Black electorate to "hold" its vote until all four major presidential candidates address a "people's agenda" that Minister Farrakhan is prepared to represent.
The Reverend is now in the valley of decision not unlike the position in which he found himself in 1984. In 1984, right before the Democratic Convention, Minister Farrakhan was being interviewed by a woman who was the host of a television program. During the show she asked Minister Farrakhan who he felt had placed pressure on Rev. Jackson to distance himself from Min. Farrakhan. The Minister replied, " Well, as I read in the newspapers and of course I have to be very careful of what I read in the newspapers, there was a conversation with Mr. Strauss after the debate in, I think it was Dallas, Texas. And Mr. Strauss was overheard telling Rev. Jackson that 'he had to repudiate Farrakhan'. And Mr. Jackson was overheard saying that he had a moral obligation. And Mr. Strauss was heard to say, ' That's B.S.'. So I would imagine that Mr. Strauss, Mr. Manatt. Mr. Mondale and Mr. Hart , the leaders in the Democratic Party, other…even Black leaders have urged him to pull away from Louis Farrakhan".
The "Mr. Strauss" that Minister Farrakhan was referring to was Robert Strauss, a Democratic insider who in 1973 had become the chairman of the Democratic Party. He would move on from that position to become a major Washington lobbyist and so-called Democratic Party "wiseman" whose counsel would be sought by Democratic Party leaders and candidates. Indeed, Min. Farrakhan was correct, Robert Strauss had indeed put great pressure on Rev. Jackson to repudiate Minister Farrakhan and remove him from any role in the Jackson campaign. And in fact Strauss would later say that there was no place in the Democratic Party for Louis Farrakhan. The "Mr. Manatt" in question was Charles Manatt who was appointed chairman of the DNC by President Carter. And of course "Mr. Mondale" is Walter Mondale - the eventual presidential nominee of the Democratic Party and "Mr. Hart" is Gary Hart - the runner up.
Though Bob Strauss left the party chairmanship over 2 decades ago, he has never left the unofficial power center of the Democratic Party. In the 1984 campaign it was Strauss who was the most vociferous of those who felt that Rev. Jackson's campaign threatened the Party establishment. He also was very adamant in making the case that Rev. Jackson's campaign and the influence that Rev. Jackson gained within the party would adversely affect the Democrat's chances of winning back the White House from Republicans. Strauss, since the early 1970s, felt that the Democrats was leaning to heavily in favor of the civil rights movement. In the 1980s, though he was no longer head of the Party, he continued to raise his concerns over the direction of the Democratic Party. Rev. Jackson's impact on the Party was a chief concern of Strauss.
Strauss was very alarmed that even though the Democrats had been thoroughly defeated by Reagan-Bush in the 1984 election, little was being done inside of the party to discredit the notion that Democrats were becoming too identified with Black and minority issues. In 1986, Strauss could still be heard complaining, " The defeat will mean nothing to them. The hunger of these groups will be even greater. Women, blacks, teachers, Hispanics. They have more power, more money than ever before. Do you think these groups are going to turn the party loose? Do you think that labor is going to turn the party loose? Jesse Jackson? The others? Forget it." Strauss said.
By the time the Democratic convention rolled around in 1984, Minister Farrakhan was no longer active in Rev. Jackson's campaign which no doubt pleased Strauss, but the grip that Rev. Jackson and other groups had and were gaining in Party affairs had not been broken. In fact, much of the 1984 convention featured wheeling and dealing, and the exchange of compromise and concession between Mondale, Hart and Jackson. All of which was too much for Strauss and those with him to accept.
According to Kenneth S. Baer in Reinventing Democrats, Strauss and an elite group of Democratic Party members met to redirect the party's direction. Baer describes a November 28, 1994 meeting between Strauss and other Democrats including Stuart Eizenstat (now a Deputy Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration) where Al From, a Democratic Party adviser mentored by Strauss, presented a paper and discussed with Party leaders how the Democratic Party could change its message to appeal to a broader audience and bypass the coalition of Blacks, women and gays that the Party had become dependent upon.
Eventually, out of such meetings with Strauss, From and others, including a Tennessee Congressman named Al Gore, an organization, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), would be formed dedicated to the task of moving the Democratic Party beyond its current base of support. While a goal of these planning sessions and organizing efforts was to make the Democratic Party more electable, a parallel goal of men like Strauss, who had become lobbyists, was to increasingly make the Democratic Party receptive to the interests of corporate America.
In 1992, journalist William Greider wrote of this paradigm shift inside of the Democratic Party as well as Robert Strauss' dominant role under the new regime:
The Democrats might more accurately be described now as "the party of Washington lawyers" - lawyers who serve as the connective tissue within the party's upper reaches. They are the party establishment, to the extent anyone is, that has replaced the old networks of state and local political bosses. But these lawyers have no constituencies of their own and, indeed, must answer to no one, other than their clients. Democratic lawyers who have reached this plateau are mostly veterans of past administrations or old presidential campaigns, though some served as aides to key congressional leaders. They move easily in and out of the various power centers in the Democratic Congress, dispensing political advice on the direction of the party and specific issues and also distributing that important commodity - campaign money. Many major law firms have formed their own political action committees, so that the various strands - party strategy, issues, money - conveniently come together in one location. These lawyers speak, naturally enough, with a mixture of motives - for the good of the party, presumably, but also for the benefit of the clients who are paying them.
Has the party of Jefferson and Jackson been reduced to the political machinations of six Washington law firms? Not quite but…when I asked other hands in Washington to take a stab at naming "the six law firms" who form the establishment of the Democratic Party, none of them hesitated or argued with the premise. They had only marginal disagreements about which firms ought to be included.
The ubiquitous Robert Strauss of Akin, Gump, a Texan who was party chairman in the mid-1970s and U.S. trade representative in the Carter administration, was on everyone's list. The news media dubbed him " Mr. Democrat" and often seek his thoughts on party affairs, though Strauss is closer to the Republicans in the White House and to Republican corporate interests than to any bread-and-butter Democratic constituencies. His firm represents everything from Drexel Burnham Lambert to the Motion Picture Association of America, from McDonnell Douglas to AT&T. When George Bush appointed him ambassador to Moscow in 1991, it was widely understood that Strauss would be busy arranging deals for American business to develop markets and resources inside the newly liberated republics.
Greider's line. "These lawyers speak, naturally enough, with a mixture of motives - for the good of the party, presumably, but also for the benefit of the clients who are paying them." deserves careful attention today - 16 years after he opposed the union between Minister Farrakhan and Rev. Jackson. What clients pay Akin, Gump today where Strauss still works? According to the Center For Responsive Politics, Akin Gump is the lobbying firm for a virtual who's who of special interests. In 1998 the firm pulled in over $11,800, 000 in income from every corporation that you could imagine.
And in 1999-2000 Akin, Gump gave over $190,000 to House and Senate candidates in both parties.
And Robert Strauss has already contributed to Al Gore's campaign - personally giving him a $1000 contribution - the maximum for one person.
The Democratic party of 2000 has moved a long way from the party of 1984. The DLC and Bob Strauss not only diminished the influence of Rev. Jackson inside of the Democratic Party, but they also were successful in their efforts to cater to the interests of the business and financial community. In 16 years, the Democratic Party has gone from the appearance of "the party of the people" to the reality that it is the party of corporate and banking interests.
But Rev. Jackson too has adapted with the times and with the creation of his Wall St. Project, he has an access to corporate America that rivals that of the DLC. Many have been disappointed with Rev. Jackson's recent interactions with Corporate America but few question the sagacity that he has demonstrated in making such connections. And many will admit that his efforts have certainly benefited a significant portion of the Black upper class.
And while the Reverend is not running for office this year and is not on the ticket his presence is still important. The question remains will he be willing to speak to the legitimate interests of the poor and middle-class of his people as well as the coalition that he has historically represented or will the Reverend's first priority be to further and maintain the access that he has obtained with the corporate and financial community over the last 10 years. Will he provide an honest critique of the pros and cons of a Gore-Lieberman ticket or will he fail to offer any legitimate criticism of the policies that Gore and Lieberman have championed? And will Rev. Jackson agree with any legitimate criticism of the Democratic ticket offered by Minister Farrakhan, especially if that criticism is directed at Sen. Lieberman? Or will the Reverend do or say anything to avoid being branded an "anti-Semite" even if that label is unfairly applied?
By an act of God, Minister Farrakhan, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Robert Strauss are all alive and active in this year's election season. 16 years ago Robert Strauss was successful in his effort to separate the Reverend from the Minister. And in the process Strauss was able to simultaneously move the Democratic Party firmly into the grip of multinational corporations as well as set the grassroots Black political movement back by nearly two decades.
It is hard to argue that the Black electorate still has not recovered from the blow to the unity of Minister Farrakhan and Rev. Jackson leveled by Robert Strauss and the Democratic Party Establishment. But election 2000 may represent the long-awaited rematch. And all have lived to fight another day.
Will Rev. Jackson be able to withstand the enormous pressure that the "New Democratic" party will place on him to "denounce" Minister Farrakhan and maybe more important, will Rev. Jackson finally accept the Minister's outstretch hand in an effort to represent "a people's agenda"?
We shall see.
Read yesterday's L.A. Times profile of Robert Strauss
Monday, August 14, 2000
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