Bert Lance enjoys challenging people's conceptions about Jesse Jackson. Most people believe Mr. Jackson is a liberal. Not true, says Mr. Lance. Just look at Jackson's two top issues: drugs and jobs. Neither is a ``liberal'' issue.
Most people think Jackson is running for president to gain influence in the Democratic Party. Not true, Lance says. He is seriously running to be president.
Most people believe Jackson cannot get white votes, especially the votes of white Southerners. Again, not true, says Lance. A number of white Southerners are swinging behind Jackson, including Billy Carter, the brother of former President Jimmy Carter.
Lance, former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter White House, says Jackson's surprising campaign is ``making history. Something is happening out there in America,'' he says.
(Republicans take new look at the role of government. Page 8.)
In recent months, Lance has served quietly as a friend, confidant, and adviser to Jackson. They talk once or twice a day by telephone, often in the early morning or late at night after Jackson has completed a hard day of campaigning.
Twelve years ago, Lance helped steer Mr. Carter's come-from-behind race for the White House. Now he suggests that the press and public may be equally surprised by Jackson's success in 1988.
But Lance admits that the Jackson phenomenon could sorely challenge the Democratic Party. Some party insiders worry that Jackson's success could split the party in November.
``I guess I feel strongly about this,'' Lance told the Monitor in an interview. ``If it pulls [the party] apart, it should be pulled apart.
``All these years, they've been giving lip service to saying that we are a party that is inclusive instead of exclusive. We've said the Democratic Party has a great big umbrella, and everybody can be comfortable under that umbrella. If they didn't mean it, then it ought to be pulled apart.''
If Jackson wins more delegates than anyone this year, the party should rally around him, just as it would Michael Dukakis or Albert Gore, says Lance.
``If he wins it, he's entitled to it. He's entitled to support just like anybody else is entitled to support of the [party] structure. And if that is not forthcoming, then great harm will have been done to the Democratic Party.''
Lance credits Jackson's success to several things, especially his political message. ``He hasn't wavered from it. People believe him. He's got credibility about what he's saying. He says it extremely well.''
But Lance says success also followed hard work. ``I've always believed that if you had a fellow who works 150 percent of the time, he's going to beat a fellow who works something less than that.''
Jackson's Michigan triumph on Saturday, when he got 55 percent of the Democratic caucus votes, was a ``personal victory'' resulting from terribly hard work, Lance says.
While some Democratic leaders, such as Mayor Edward Koch of New York City, call Jackson's positions ``radical,'' Lance demurs.
``He's not liberal ... on issues that the American people care about,'' says Lance.
Drugs, for example. That issue ``doesn't have a liberal-conservative tinge to it. It is what it is. [Jackson] is strong about law and order. So he's not liberal in that regard.''
Jackson has been criticized for cozying up to Fidel Castro, or showing too much sympathy for Libya after President Reagan ordered the bombing raid.
``That's been pretty well dealt with,'' says Lance. The American people are concerned about the present, and they're concerned about the future. Drugs are a present threat.
``When people are in their living rooms or dens, and they see him talk about drugs, and they see him saying to children and others, `Don't get into that situation,' then he sort of becomes a surrogate for the same message that they're giving. Because they're scared to death [of drugs], and that message knows no color.''
Lance compares Jackson to a fireman, and the nation to a burning house, on issues like drugs and jobs.
``If you have a situation where you need help, it doesn't make any difference where it comes from. ... If the house is on fire, and the fireman shows up, you don't question his color or credentials. You don't send him back to the firehouse and say, `Send somebody else.'''
If the house is on fire in November, says Lance, then Jackson may be just the fireman the country wants.
As Jackson picks up momentum, Lance looks forward with great anticipation to the April 19 primary in New York. Jackson ran well there in 1984. ``He's going to do better'' this time, Lance predicts. ``A lot better.''