WHERE THERE ARE television cameras, there is Jesse Jackson. So it was inevitable that when TV crews descended upon Florida following the Election Day mess, the Rev. Jackson would be on the next available flight to Miami.
Once in the Sunshine State, Jackson assumed his role as self-proclaimed defender of democracy. He took on the cause of the 22,000 Palm Beach County residents he calls "disenfranchised." These are the voters who profess to have been so unsure about how to fill out a two-page presidential ballot, but were absolutely certain that they meant to vote for Al Gore.
"Step out of the courts and count the votes of the people," Jackson implored. "Honor their will. Be open, free and fair."
Not that openness, freedom and fairness have always ranked so highly on Jackson's list of priorities. A good number of Floridians no doubt remember a political rally the reverend attended in 1984, only 70 miles south of Miami in the Cuban capital of Havana.
Then, Jackson's passion for democracy yielded to his passion for socialism. Extolling a regime that has no elections whatsoever and a dictator who has disenfranchised every one of his subjects, Jackson declared, "Long live Cuba! Long live President Castro!"
Perhaps Jackson's ardor for democracy is new -- that would explain the baffling way he seeks to implement it in Florida.
In his attempt to sound like a rhyming Patrick Henry, he offers a new standard for representative government: Everyone has the right to vote, except for incompetent Democrats who can't follow fairly straightforward directions. They have the right to vote twice. Incompetent Republicans -- like the 21,942 voters in conservative Duval County who double-punched their ballots -- are out of luck.
Of course, no Jackson campaign is complete without a dose of hysteria and gratuitous appeals to ethnic tensions. Speaking to a mostly Jewish and African-American audience at Miami's Temple Israel last week, Jackson tied the confusion of a handful of easily confused voters to the great atrocities of world history.
"Once again," he thundered, "sons and daughters of slavery and Holocaust survivors are bound together with a shared agenda, bound by their hopes and their fears about national public policy."
First the slave trade, then the Third Reich, and now this -- the butterfly ballot.
Jackson is pushing the implausible theory that Palm Beach County's much maligned ballot format is actually a racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy. He argues that African-Americans and Jewish retirees were "targeted" by county election officials in some sort of effort to silence these two traditionally Democratic constituencies.
Never mind that Democrats control Palm Beach County's elections board, or that Theresa LePore, who designed the ballot, is a loyal Democrat who has since done all she can to skew the election tally in Al Gore's favor. Never mind the insulting suggestion that those who can't figure out a ballot are predominantly African-American or Jewish -- or, for that matter, Democrats.
Jackson is such a master at stoking ethnic discontent that he doesn't need a semblance of truth, or even a coherent fictional theory, to be effective. Racial justice, like his passion for a sound electoral process, is not his goal as much as it is a means to an end. Taking up the language of the "disenfranchised" lets Jackson clothe an otherwise naked agenda -- the raw pursuit of political power.
Jackson knows that his stock as a political power-broker rises or falls depending on which party controls the White House next year. If playing the race card and undermining the nation's confidence in its democratic process can tilt the election toward Al Gore, Jackson would command tremendous influence and prestige in a Gore administration.
No wonder Jackson appeared to be crying on ABC News after the network erroneously called the race for Bush on election night. His sobs must have quickly turned to tears of joy when he discovered that an unorthodox ballot design would enable him to do what he does best -- demagogue his way into a position of power.
Just as he has suddenly become the unlikely champion of electoral integrity, the man who infamously coined the term "Hymietown" to describe New York City now presents himself as the great uniter of Jews and African-Americans. "In the '60s we marched together. We fought together. We fought for the right to vote. We fought for working rights together. Now we're fighting for our vote to count together."
But the great uniter is really the great pretender, appropriating the civil-rights movement, the rhetoric of democracy, and ethnic animosities for his own ends.
Jesse Jackson is a man of many slogans, but ultimately, one cause: his own.