Nat Hentoff and how Jesse Jackson sold his soul
A few weeks ago, Nat Hentoff, a long-time columnist for the Village Voice, died. Despite the fact that Hentoff was a political liberal and an atheist, he was remembered fondly by many conservative Christians, particularly for his principled opposition to abortion and his defense of the freedom of speech, even for conservatives under attack from the left. From William Doino's tribute:
But nothing shocked the progressive world more than Hentoff's decision to become a pro-lifer, in the early 1980s, at the very moment the Left was attacking Ronald Reagan for defending the unborn. What infuriated "pro-choice" liberals most was Hentoff's assertion that he had come to his decision, not by means of any religious convictions, but by studying the very scientific and medical textbooks on conception and fetology which liberals--self-proclaimed supporters of reason and science--presumably supported.
Yet, as Hentoff pointed out in his many writings and talks on the subject, the problem for the "pro-choice" Left was--and remains--that there is overwhelming evidence that human life begins in the womb, and that the fetus is a developing human life, worthy of legal protection. Hentoff was also outraged by those liberals who openly supported infanticide and "mercy killings" for the old and disabled.
Hentoff believed his pro-life convictions were not only consistent with, but demanded by, his classic liberalism; and that it was those "liberals" who sanctioned the culture of death who were betraying their stated ideals in defense of human rights and the weakest members of our society.
Sadly, not all pro-life liberals have been as principled as Hentoff. Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Teddy Kennedy, Joe Biden, and Fritz Hollings are among the Democrat politicians who professed opposition to abortion as they climbed the political ladder in socially conservative states, then embraced abortion rights when they developed presidential ambitions. It seems likely that these politicians never really had convictions on the issue, just a willingness to say whatever it took to win. (These types exist in the GOP as well.)
One former Democrat presidential candidate is a different case entirely. Carl Trueman recalls a passage from Nat Hentoff's memoirs:
There is one passage in Speaking Freely (177-78) that offers disturbing insights into modern political culture. Hentoff quotes a certain politician on abortion: "What happens to the soul of a nation that accepts the aborting of the life of a baby without a pang of conscience? What kind of society will we have twenty years hence if life can be taken so casually?" He also quotes the same politician on the right to privacy: "There are those who argue that the right to privacy is of a higher order than the right of life. That was the premise of slavery. You could not protest the existence or treatment of slaves on the plantation because that was private and therefore outside of your right to be concerned." This politician had himself almost been aborted, and he saw the clear connection between the dehumanizing of a child in the womb and racial oppression, in that both involve a denial of real personhood to a human being.
Later on, this politician decided to run for president and magically changed his mind on abortion. His name? Jesse Jackson.
In his memoir, Hentoff recalls meeting Jackson on a train in 1994. As they journeyed together, Hentoff told Jackson that he frequently quoted his pro-life writings because they were among the most compelling he had read. Jackson, he said, looked troubled. Hentoff then asked the politician whether he had any second thoughts on his change of mind. Jackson looked even more troubled and said, "I'll get back to you on that." Hentoff ended the anecdote on this laconic note: "I haven't heard from him since."
This story brought back a memory. Ten years earlier, Jackson was making his first run for the White House. On January 15, 1984, the eight major candidates for the Democrat nomination -- Rev. Jackson, Senators Gary Hart, Walter Mondale, John Glenn, Alan Cranston, and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, former Sen. George McGovern, and former Florida Gov. Reubin Askew -- participated in a debate on the campus of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The first half was moderated by ABC Nightline anchor Ted Koppel. The second half would feature questions from the audience, facilitated by daytime TV talk show star Phil Donahue.
Some pro-life activists in Boston had the idea of going to Dartmouth to demonstrate and, perhaps, to have the chance the be in the audience to ask the candidates to explain and defend their support for abortion. I remember a Campus Crusade for Christ staffer, Rita Tracy, driving myself and a few other MIT students up to Hanover to join in the effort. I remember standing out in the bitter cold just off campus, during the hour or so before the debate, holding signs and chanting, and that we all had trouble not laughing at ourselves -- we just didn't see ourselves as angry radicals.
We didn't get into the debate itself but watched on TV from another lecture hall. When the debate ended, the pro-life protesters gathered to consider our next move. The candidates were going to appear, two-by-two, in lecture halls around campus for townhall-style Q&A sessions. It would be another chance to confront the candidates on the abortion issue. Some of the group wanted to head to the session with Walter Mondale, because he was the front-runner. I suggested instead that we should go to the session with two formerly pro-life candidates, Jesse Jackson and Fritz Hollings, and challenge them to defend their about-face. And that's where most of us headed.
My memory of what happened next is rather vague. I seem to recall that the two candidates each had a set amount of time to field questions, and that we didn't get to direct a question about abortion to Jackson, but one of our number, an Orthodox rabbi from Boston, managed to ask Hollings about his changed views. Hollings gave the usual song-and-dance about being "personally opposed" to abortion but supporting the rights of women to make their own choices, a performance that only cemented his rhetorical resemblance to Foghorn Leghorn. (It was easy to imagine Hollings saying, "Fortunately, I keep my feathers numbered in case of just such an emergency.")
After the session ended, we poured out of the lecture hall onto the snowy quad, under a cold clear night. TV cameras surrounded Jackson, their lights making his eyes glow a green-gold color. I was about six feet away and was struck by his charismatic presence -- tall, with formal bearing, and quick to find a memorable phrase in answer to a reporter's question.
What impact might Jesse Jackson have made had he chosen to stick with his eloquent pro-life principles during that presidential campaign, had he put his charisma and rhetorical skill in the service of the sanctity of human life? In 1984, there were still plenty of pro-life voters among rank-and-file Democrats -- blue-collar Catholics from the Rust Belt and small-town southerners who backed Reagan in 1980 in part because of his bold opposition to abortion. Jackson might well have built a rainbow coalition that included pro-lifers as well as economic liberals and his fellow African Americans, and it might have been enough to get him to the nomination. His success as a pro-life candidate could have heartened pro-life officials, candidates, and voters to stick with the Democrat party. A Reagan-Jackson general election battle between two pro-life candidates might have driven pro-abortion activism to the fringes of American politics. We might have avoided the political self-sorting that drove social conservatives out of the Democrat Party of their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Win or lose, Jackson as pro-life candidate would have remained a credible voice not only for those who were weak and powerless because of their race, but those too small to speak for themselves. Instead, he abandoned his principles for the sake of the deep-pocketed Democrat donors who would only contribute to candidates who adhered to the absolutist pro-abortion position. His influence and moral authority has almost entirely evaporated, and his subsequent career and that of his son have been marred by scandal.
At least we still have his powerful words from before 1984. May God grant Jesse Jackson the grace of regret and repentance, and may he once again be a powerful voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.
In 1999 and 2000, Hentoff also criticized Jesse Jackson for his refusal to get involved with the effort to free black slaves in Sudan.
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