JESSE JACKSON continues to be the big story of American politics. Can he really gain the nomination? Can he be stopped? Is the party - is the country - ready for a black candidate? And, if the voters are ready for a black on the ticket, is the Rev. Mr. Jackson the one who should have that opportunity? For a newsman at a social gathering the other night the conversation revolved around the same subject: Jesse Jackson. Those in attendance were political leaders and members of the Washington news media. All were fascinated by the ``Jackson phenomenon.''
The Democrats for the most part were worried. The Republicans were bemused. The news people were elated. They love a big story.
But there is one very important part of the Jackson success that is not getting much, if any, attention: his effect on black communities throughout the United States. Blacks stood taller as Jackson outjoked, outcooled, and outdebated the other candidates. Now their candidate appears to be closing in on a realistic chance at gaining a spot on the fall ticket. Blacks from coast to coast are glowing. He is their pride. He is their new Joe Louis.
One might compare Jackson to Martin Luther King. Jackson himself seeks to evoke this comparison with his oratory. The King emotion and rhythm are there. But King was leading blacks out of their wilderness. There will be no one like him.
Jackson is more like Louis. He is the blacks' champion. Like Louis, he is standing up to white contenders and besting them. His victories are theirs. It's the way blacks feel when they see outstanding black athletes. It's only a beginning, they know. But it gives them needed assurance that blacks can achieve in a world where whites hold so many of the top power positions.
I have stated my reservations about Jackson's being on the ticket in the fall. He could polarize the vote, turning the contest into one that pits blacks against whites. This would be divisive and corrosive of national unity. It could also be damaging to black progress.
Another, less-threatening black might not be divisive - or so divisive. Yet many whites view Jackson as a demagogue. Many whites, too, particularly those in the Jewish community, think Jackson is anti-Semitic. And many whites, too, find him overbearing. At this party the other night there was also talk - from very responsible media people - of Jackson's Achilles' heel: Questions arose relating to his character that would definitely surface if he were put on the ticket.
Blacks are clearly showing their interest in Jackson in a most telling way, their vote. Up to 100 percent of the black vote is being registered in these primaries. Political experts used to talk about the poor turnout of blacks in elections. Their explanation was that blacks didn't follow the twists and turns of politics, and they just weren't interested. Nonsense! Jesse's their man. Jesse's their ride upward. And for Jesse they get out to the polling booths - never mind rain or snow, or whatever obstacle may stand in their way.
The black communities' hero of heroes, of course, is King. But, particularly for older blacks, heavyweight champion Louis was the one who lifted spirits and hopes.
As a young newsman I occasionally moved through the black section of my Midwestern community during moments when Louis was fighting and winning. Blacks were called Negroes then, and worse. They were down - economically and in spirit.
But little crowds would form on porches and on the street where a more fortunate neighbor owned a radio. The community was alive with Louis talk. Joe was their shining light and bright hope.
For the time being, Jackson certainly is a positive force among blacks. Many liberals see in Jackson an opportunity for widening and strengthening US democracy. They feel Jackson has shown that the presidential election process is open to blacks. That, of itself, is progress.
Jackson is also able to talk tough about what blacks must do to move forward. When he tells youngsters that they must study, go to school, and graduate, they listen attentively. And when he talks against using drugs and tells them that ``babies must stop having babies,'' there are no titters in his audience.
Jackson has noted what the Kerner Commission found a generation ago and what a recent study shows is not abating: The United States was increasingly becoming two divided groups, black and white. And he has expressed discouragement over the failure of the long-held liberal dream - that legislation when it came would allow blacks to become an equal part of the overall community.
Jackson sees the road ahead for blacks one that whites - or most whites - have to travel if they are to succeed. He deplores the failure of blacks to take advantage of opportunities now available.
Thus, it is not too surprising that Jackson has picked up so many white votes - 15 to 20 percent of the caucus vote in Michigan, for example.
Whatever else is said or written, Jackson is - and rightly should be - the big political story.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.