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A lesson for Jackson in South Africa

In his visit to South Africa, Jesse Jackson may have inadvertently provided an object lesson for those who thought George Bush hedged too much on events in Europe. Might Mr. Bush have understood that those who rush to get in front of galloping history also run the risk of getting trampled? That's essentially what happened to Jackson's hopes when, after a high-visibility start to his planned 11-day tour, the spotlight suddenly shifted to black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, freed from prison after 27 years. And that's literally what almost happened to Jackson himself when he sought to share the limelight with Mandela at a Capetown rally but was swept up in a sea of humanity eager for a glimpse of their newly released leader.

His eventual meeting with Mandela was similarly lost in the crush of homecoming events. Jackson abruptly cut short his stay and flew to Namibia, disappointing some planners of anti-apartheid events who had counted on his showing up.

Such trips by Jackson have accomplished good in the past _ such as the freeing of a captured U.S. Navy pilot by Syria _ and may in the future. But this one was a case of poor timing that produced several unfortunate results.

For one thing, although he's a legitimate leader, Jackson did not come off well in comparison to Mandela, something he couldn't have foreseen. And by departing early, Jackson also gives ammunition to critics who would like to dismiss the trip as a calculated effort to get good footage for campaign ads. It was partly that, but Jackson also has demonstrated a sincere concern for the plight of downtrodden people everywhere.

Most damaging, though, are the lingering doubts raised about his judgment.

Jackson more than any living person embodies the hopes and aspirations of black Americans. Clearly the same applies to Mandela and black South Africans. But the emotional reunion between Mandela and those for whom he suffered so long was essentially a family affair. Jackson wound up looking like an awkward visitor who should have waited until the intimate emotions subsided before paying his respects. Then the meeting that should have symbolically linked the aspirations of two oppressed groups might have commanded the dignity and recognition it deserves.