NEW YORK -- Talk about Daniel in the lion's den. Jerry Brown's decision to go directly to New York Jewish leaders and try to defend his choice of Jesse Jackson as his running mate was either a remarkable act of political courage or another reason towonder what planet he comes from.
In a city where pandering to the Jewish vote by hopeful Democratic presidential candidates is a part of the accepted routine, Brown told his listeners at the Jewish Community Relations Council just about the one thing guaranteed to alienate most of them.
The reaction was predictable. A council member, state Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, interrupted Brown to tell him that "you disqualify yourself . . . you remove yourself from the Jewish community" by picking Jackson. And after Hikind had been hustled out of the room, others indicated the same in other ways.
Charlotte Jacobson of Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, told Brown that the Jewish community was not opposed to having a black vice president, but not the individual he wanted to name.
Neither of these views came as any surprise to Brown, who knows as well as anyone the history of conflict between Jackson and the Jewish community. His "Hymietown" slur during the 1984 presidential campaign has not been forgotten, and perhaps more damaging has been a perception that Jackson is anti-Israel and pro-Arab in his support for creation of a Palestine state.
Former Mayor Ed Koch of New York was roundly criticized during the 1988 New York primary, when he was supporting Sen. Al Gore, for saying that Jewish voters "would be crazy" to vote for Jackson, but the sentiment was widespread.
This year, without Jackson on the ballot, what happens to New York's black vote in next Tuesday's Democratic primary is less certain, although Gov. Bill Clinton has won the bulk of that vote in other states. Brown, in repeating his intention to ask Jackson to be his running mate if nominated, obviously hopes to draw some black support away.
But to see the move as simply a short-term gesture by Brown argues against practical politics. Brown figures to lose just as many votes or more in the Jewish community here for advocating Jackson for his vice president as he will get among black voters for doing so. For one thing, Jews in a New York Democratic primary usually vote in considerably larger numbers than do blacks, especially when Jackson is not running.
So what is Brown thinking about? He told the New York Jewish leaders that the American society "is unraveling" over racial divisions and that essential to "survival of a free society is healing the divisions between black and white." Jackson, he said, by experience and influence is especially qualified to help do that. But other blacks less offensive to Jews could play that role.
On a plane from Washington to New York the other day, Brown discussed the decision in the context of the momentous changes occurring in the country and in his Democratic Party. He said he sees this 1992 election as signaling the greatest sea change in American politics in 60 years, since Franklin D. Roosevelt ushered in a social revolution.
If the conventional wisdom remains that Brown can't be nominated, and it does, then the notion of a Brown-Jackson ticket as "a winning coalition," as Brown put it the other day, will surely be dismissed as a pipe dream. Yet Brown seems determined to challenge conventional political thinking across the board, and worry about picking up the pieces later.
Appearing on the Phil Donahue television talk show a couple of hours after the meeting with the Jewish leaders, Brown did something that well demonstrates his political tactics. He stole Donahue's theatrics by leaving the stage and walking down among the studio audience, obliging Donahue to chase after him. He broke the regular pattern and created a different dynamic for the show.
In the campaign as well, Brown repeatedly seeks to create a different dynamic, to break out of the orthodox and play on his own terms. The offer to Jackson very likely will cost him in Jewish votes, but in the meantime you can't say he isn't shaking things up.