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Marshall Frady’s decision to characterize Jesse Jackson’s life as a “pilgrimage” in the subtitle of his voluminous new biography, Jesse, is simultaneously appropriate and misleading. On the one hand, Jackson’s political odyssey has a heartfelt religious dimension, something that commentators have too often neglected amid the clattering hooves of the campaign horse race. On the other hand, Jackson’s penchant for seizing a highly public role in just about anything that strikes his fancy suggests that he’s lacked the kind of fixedness of purpose implied by the term “pilgrimage.”

Throughout his career, Jackson has variously assumed the mantle of social activist, minister, politician, and diplomat (and that’s just the short list). But declaring that Jackson is any one of these things isn’t really adequate. His zigzagging path from the 1960s to the present has ensured him a place in the national consciousness; at 54, he is an American icon. Yet his reputation for restlessness still prompts the media to inquire, “What does Jesse want?” Jackson’s protestations aside, that question is always relevant.

Frady is at times too trusting of his subject’s apologias, and sympathetically reports Jackson’s plaint that few of his political rivals were ever pressed so elementally about their intentions. But the author understands the critical dilemma of Jackson’s attempts to straddle the line between religion and politics. This comes as no surprise: Frady has also profiled the Rev. Billy Graham and former segregationist George Wallace.

A preacher’s moral certitude stands in direct opposition to a politician’s pesky shades of gray. Jackson does see those shades of gray. In fact, he often acts upon them savvily. In times of crisis, Frady notes, Jackson shows a pronounced tendency to chuck his “radical” reputation and choose instead a stabilizing course of action (such as campaigning hard for his erstwhile presidential rivals, including Bill Clinton in 1996). This denotes a certain generosity of spirit that appeals to true believers.

But when he plays the politician, Jackson rarely strikes the pose of humility expected of a man of God, particularly if TV cameras are nearby. Indeed, Jesse’s anecdotes suggest that Jackson has even more hubris than an ordinary politician. As a theology graduate student, he justified lax classwork by arguing that his extracurricular organizing work made him “special.” Prideful behavior—like his refusal to run for mayor of Washington despite broad support and his uncharacteristically low profile as the city’s shadow senator—only strengthens this perception.

Jackson’s doublethink complicates Frady’s job enormously. The biographer tries to delve into his subject’s private and public minds but confirms only a profound inscrutability. Jackson is unbelievably ambitious, but so are all politicians. Jackson is a perpetual outsider, but this is no revelation in a decade when everybody is claiming outsider status. And Jackson’s faith is important, but it can be trumped by politics. Thus, while Frady often manages to wrap excellent reportage in elegant prose, he cannot answer the most pertinent variation on the question that won’t go away: What does Jesse want—with his life?

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Frady began researching Jesse in 1988, just as Jackson was mounting the second (and more successful) of his two campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jackson, known for switching book endeavors and editors the way some people change hairstyles, granted Frady unusually generous access. Frady, a former correspondent for Newsweek and Nightline, took full advantage of the opportunity to observe his subject in a wide variety of settings.

It’s worth noting the shortcomings of this approach: Frady’s writings suggest he grew dangerously close to his charismatic subject. While Jackson’s 1984 debacles—namely, his “Hymietown” slur about New York City and subsequent reluctance to distance himself from Minister Louis Farrakhan—are treated with objectivity, Jesse is distinctly less critical of Jackson’s imperfections than biographies by journalist Barbara Reynolds, reporters Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton, and political scientist Ernest R. House.

In Frady’s hands, Jackson’s reckless jockeying for attention in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, his near-tyrannical treatment of subordinates, his widely presumed extramarital affairs, the questionable financial strategies of some of his organizations, and his attempts to strong-arm the media come off more as explainable quirks than as serious character flaws. Tellingly, Frady never refutes (or so much as mentions) allegations that supporters of Jackson helped sink an early Jackson biography by Barbara Reynolds. In her book The Jackson Phenomenon, former Jackson press secretary Elizabeth O. Colton wrote about this event; it was widely rumored that Reynolds and her publisher received threatening phone calls, resulting in the cancellation of a publicity party and the removal of the book from many Chicago bookstores.

Despite such drawbacks, Jesse’s up-close-and-personal view does pay rich dividends. Frady gives a moving account of Jackson’s birth to an unwed mother (in a scandalous affair with her married neighbor), and discusses Jackson’s outcast childhood in segregated Greenville, S.C. Equally affecting is Frady’s sketch of Jackson’s return to his childhood neighborhood in 1988. The author, who is white, refreshingly admits that his conversations with Jackson have forced him to revisit many assumptions about his own youth; Frady himself grew up near Greenville and attended Furman University, located literally in Jackson’s back yard, when it was for whites only.

Frady also offers astute political insights. He points out the oft-ignored conservative tinge to Jackson’s self-help message, Jackson’s knack for taking controversial stands on subjects that later went mainstream (a Palestinian state, South Africa, male responsibility), and the frequency with which Jackie, Jesse’s wife of three decades, serves as a political provocateuse for her husband.

The historical and analytical passages are edifying, but less so than Frady’s transcripts of Jackson’s speech. Reading Jackson’s digressive utterings is almost always a treat. Even allowing for the politician-preacher’s dash of self-hype, Jesse unmistakably conveys Jackson’s lightning-fast mind, his deep knowledge of both biblical and modern history, his ability to riff sagely on just about any topic, and his incomparable persuasiveness.

This last trait is most clearly on display in Frady’s luxuriant recounting of Jackson’s efforts at Middle East diplomacy, the last of which—his mission to free American “guests” from Iraq in 1990—included Frady on Jackson’s team as a witness. After watching Jackson in action as a mediator, most readers will back Frady’s contention that his Middle East outings were diplomatic masterpieces that, tragically, have inspired more ridicule than admiration. (Even here, Jackson must lay a large chunk of the blame on himself. By trying to attract so much media attention, he has made many Americans immune to him. With Jackson, viewers quickly learn that there’s a fine line between sublime and tacky.)

Frady makes a gutsy decision to render Jackson’s conversations verbatim, even when they verge on dialect. A short but suggestive example is Jackson’s comment on the ubiquity of Saddam Hussein’s visage in Baghdad: “Homeboy sho likes his picture took, don’t he?” Some readers may oppose Frady for disrespecting Jackson, or for exposing him to stereotyping. But the fact is that Jackson’s slangy language is an integral part of his persona. Paraphrased, his words would have lost not just their immediacy and verve but also their veracity. In Frady’s book, Jackson’s linguistic splendor shines, period.

Yet all these carefully noted words, these nostalgic accounts of South Carolina, and these political analyses do not bring Frady any closer to finding out what makes the private Jackson tick. What emerges from Jesse is the sense of a man in perpetual transformation, if not perpetual indecision. In fact, Jackson currently seems to be in another larval stage, figuring out what to do now that Clinton, Farrakhan, and Colin Powell are grabbing more headlines, if not wielding more influence, than he is. Despite Frady’s best efforts, the old question still haunts. America hasn’t heard the last of Jesse Jackson, but if he knows what he wants, he’s still not telling.CP