Fineman: How Jackson's Slam Helps Obama Politically

Jesse Jackson Sr. just Sister Souljah'd himself.

Now the question is whether his crudely worded attack on Sen. Barack Obama will help the Democrats' presumptive nominee the way a somewhat similar (though not as foul-mouthed) Jackson attack 16 years ago helped Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

My answer is "yes," at least a little bit. All Obama has to do is hope the story doesn't fade too fast, and he might even want to try to keep it alive. But knowing him, Obama will just take the quick benefit and move on, rather than provoke a longer confrontation.

Students of irony and history can hear the Jacksonian echoes. In May 1992, Clinton used a Jackson-hosted forum on youth politics to criticize the cultural influence of rappers, particularly a strident and combative young woman who went by the name Sister Souljah.

The Clinton campaign didn't give Jackson a heads up, preferring to launch the criticism as a surprise and draw the reverend (always a controversial figure) into a defensive overreaction. It worked. Jackson attacked—which is precisely what the candidate wanted.

What better way to prove your mainstream bona fides with white conservative voters than to be criticized by Jackson? Or so the thinking went. Clinton was a Southerner, or course, but a Democrat, and to win certain states—this was before they were called "Red"—you had to show that you were not a traditional liberal Democrat, not someone stuck in the old ghetto of identify politics.

This time around, no baiting by Obama was required.

Obama has been preaching a portion of the social gospel that Jackson himself used to preach, but with a different emphasis. The senator from Illinois has stressed that African-American men need to focus on their responsibilities as fathers—and not act like "boys." Obama also has suggested that religious institutions could play a role in solving social problems (and, under careful rules, use government money to do so). And Obama has talked about the need for better federal education and health-care efforts, too.

But from Jackson's point of view, Obama was spending too much time talking about black males as irresponsible "boys" and not enough about the failings of the federal government.

And so, on a Fox News microphone he didn't know was on, Jackson whispered to an on-air companion: "See, Barack's been talking down to black people … I wanna cut his nuts off."

Perfect! What a gift for Obama in swing states like West Virginia and New Hampshire!

Jackson deserves praise and admiration for his pioneering role as a presidential candidate. He was a force to be reckoned with in 1984 and 1988. But his stridency, sense of endless victimhood and sometimes way-too-color-conscious thinking can make him seem to be an unpalatable political antique.

The moment he heard that Fox was going to broadcast the overhead remarks, Jackson preemptively apologized "for any harm or hurt that this hot-mike conversation may have caused." He called Obama to say so. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, fired back. "Reverend Jackson is my dad, and I'll always love him," the younger Jackson said—and went on to "reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric."

Obama himself issued only a mild statement, noting that he had grown up without a father and that he of course accepted Jackson's apology.

In fact, Obama had another answer to Jackson even before the reverend spoke. In a family interview on "Access Hollywood," Obama's two daughters appeared on camera. Even in their brief (and probably only) interview, it was easy to see that Obama and his wife, Michelle, were rearing smart, well-behaved and radiant kids.

That was Obama's point about parenting—and probably enough said.