How Does Jesse Jackson Do It?

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has a long and winning record of springing American hostages from the hands of despots. In addition to Slobodan Milosevic, Jackson has also persuaded Hafez al-Assad, Fidel Castro, and Saddam Hussein to set American captives free. He has alternately described his role in these missions as that of civil rights leader, clergyman, journalist, and “citizen of the world.” But how does a non-diplomat negotiate with a foreign government?

Jackson forayed to Yugoslavia–and to Syria, Cuba, and Iraq before that–without presidential or congressional approval. Foreign policy officials in Washington have protested publicly about all of Jackson’s rescue missions. (Jackson’s roving diplomacy rankled the Reagan and Bush administrations, but according to some reports, the Clinton administration quietly approved the latest one.)

According to his biographer, Marshall Frady, Jackson simply watches the media coverage of hostage situations like everyone else. But once he decides to get involved, he sets about networking his way into the heart of the conflict. In 1983, he cabled Assad directly to plead for the release of downed pilot Robert Goodman Jr. When Assad failed to respond, Jackson flew to Damascus and worked his way through a tangle of lower-level Syrian bureaucrats before securing a meeting with the Syrian leader. (The success of that mission jumpstarted Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.)

Extracting foreign detainees from Iraq in 1990 was more complicated. Jackson obtained a letter of invitation from the Iraqi embassy, but the United States imposed restrictions on citizen contact with Iraq. Jackson was planning a TV talk show at the time, and decided to go as a journalist. (“I am a journalist. … Nobody’s talking directly to each other … so journalists are filling that gap, the diplomatic gap,” he told reporters.)

To reach the captured soldiers in Serbia, Jackson first conferred with Yugoslavia’s ambassador to the UN in early April and requested a visa to Belgrade. Rep. Rod Blagojevich, a Serbian-American Democrat who serves alongside Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress, obtained promises of visits with the prisoners and safe passage from the Serb government. Various Serbian-American organizations then helped with travel arrangements and recruited a Milosevic aide to arrange the actual meeting

Jackson may operate independently, but he doesn’t work alone. His retinue often includes fellow clergy; in Syria and Yugoslavia, he was joined by an interdenominational group of religious leaders. His 1984 “moral offensive” to Central America and Cuba, which culminated in Castro’s release of 49 prisoners, was joined by 63 members of the press and staffed by a dozen aides. These staff members–employees of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson’s Chicago-based organization for social activism–typically coordinate his schedule and plan his press conferences. He has also enlisted a personal doctor, a lawyer to negotiate visas, and two of his sons for missions abroad.

Jackson’s forays to Cuba and Serbia were funded by the Citizen Education Fund, a nonprofit subsidiary of Rainbow/PUSH, which is in turn financed by private and corporate sponsors. One of Jackson’s individual benefactors, a North Carolina businessman, paid for the his stay in Syria. Jackson’s trip to Iraq was underwritten by the media company King World in exchange for the right to broadcast his interview with Hussein on Inside Edition. (Time Warner was originally interested in sponsoring the Iraq mission, but backed down under White House pressure.)

For the record, Jackson actually does hold diplomatic credentials, though they are unrelated to his rescue missions. In 1997, he was appointed special envoy for the president and secretary of state for the promotion of democracy in Africa.

Explainer thanks Dr. Karin Stanford and Jerry Thomas of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and recommends Marshall Frady’s Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson.

This item was written by Jodi Kantor.