THERE need be no mystery about why Jesse Jackson is getting a lot of white votes in the primaries and enthusiastic cheers from white audiences. The Rev. Mr. Jackson is a born political orator. There really hasn't been his equal in American politics since William Jennings Bryan. For evidence that his oratorical skill, not his policies, lies behind his phenomenal success on the hustings, note that he and Richard Gephardt both preached trade protectionism with equal consistency and enthusiasm during the first phase of the 1988 presidential campaign, now ended.
It worked for Jackson. It did not work for Mr. Gephardt.
The doctrine was the same. Both men articulated it well. But when Gephardt did it, the audience sat on its hands. When Jackson did it, the cheers were the envy of all other candidates.
Political oratory is an art. Almost any reasonably educated person can learn to articulate an idea and communicate it to others. But to rouse an audience takes an indefinable quality which some are born with and most are not.
Back in my London days, I went more than once to hear Labour politician Aneurin (Nye) Bevan on the hustings, not because his ideas were newsworthy, but to watch the sheer artistry with which he played his audience. Solid Tories did the same.
The United States has had plenty of good public speakers. John F. Kennedy could give an effective speech. Adlai Stevenson was famous for the quality and eloquence of his ideas and his delivery. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made notable speeches, but did best in his radio ``fireside chats.'' Huey Long was a persuasive demagogue. It is conceivable that he might even have won the presidency had he not been cut down by an assassin's bullet.
But none of those names and, except for Jackson, none of the present crop of Republicans and Democrats are in the same league with Mr. Bryan.
``You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.''
That was the peroration to Bryan's speech at the 1896 Democratic convention. The convention went wild. It nominated Bryan for the presidency.
But it needs to be noted that Bryan never went to the White House as a president. He was defeated by William McKinley, who was an indifferent public speaker.
Bevan was probably Britain's finest political orator since Benjamin Disraeli, but he never made prime minister. Winston Churchill, a superb parliamentary speaker but not a great orator on the hustings, did.
Jackson has broken down a lot of barriers - which needed to be broken. He is a rising and impressive political figure. He will be a power factor at the Democratic convention in July.
But come election day, voters tend to prefer a McKinley, a Harry Truman, a Clem Atlee, a Maggie Thatcher, very possibly a George Bush or a Michael Dukakis, over a candidate who is undoubtedly a far finer political orator.
Like many others, I have watched Jesse perform. It is a work of high art. His cadences grasp an audience, carry it along with him as his fancy rises. He leaves his audience with a wonderful sense of being exalted.
The Democrats have a problem. They must harness Jackson's skill and political drawing power to their party's cause without offending him or his following. No one has yet come up with the formula for doing just that. The Dukakis future may well depend on whether he can find the solution to that problem.
The Democrats might not be able to win with Jesse on the ticket. They will almost certainly lose without his solid support.