Remember Jackson's notorious reference decades ago to New York City as "Hymietown" -- "Hymie" being a derogatory term for Jewish people? The fake macho bravado of Jackson's newly recorded claim -- "I wanna cut off his nuts" -- will stick to Jackson far worse.
Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency of the United States, is often underestimated by his critics, but the biggest slur against him -- that he lacks "toughness" -- is disproved by the day, and Jackson just added to that list of disproofs.
Jackson, the undisputed political leader of almost 40 million African-Americans for a generation and twice a Democratic presidential candidate himself in the 1980s, accused Obama of "talking down to black people." He made the remarks before giving an interview to Fox News on a different subject. The remarks were broadcast by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly on Wednesday night.
Jackson immediately apologized for the comments, saying, "I don't want harm or hurt to come to this campaign." He didn't inflict any damage on it, but he hurt himself for the ages.
The affair is far more significant than a blink-and-you-miss-it blip on the ever-changing media landscape. Jackson's offensive remarks and his instantaneous humiliation and repudiation, even by his own son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., mark the passing of a generation and style of African-American leadership.
Jackson himself was the foremost figure, prime pioneer and main beneficiary of the second generation of modern African-American leaders. He was the most brash and successful of the in-your-face generation that seized political power from the pioneering civil-rights movement of the late Rev. Martin Luther King.
So successful was Jackson in establishing an unchallenged sway of African-American political leaders and forces in the Democratic Party nationwide that even later would-be challengers to his mantle, like the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York City, copied his rhetorical and tactical political playbook.
Sharpton's 2004 presidential campaign, like Jackson's far more impressive efforts in 1984 and 1988, never had a chance of gaining significant traction with non-African-American voters, and Sharpton knew it. But it was geared to challenge and win Jackson's traditional mantle as black America's leading national political spokesman.
Obama, however, is 20 years younger than Jackson and came of political age in a generation when African-Americans felt far more comfortable on the U.S. national political scene.
Obama became a national political leader in the Democratic Party over the past four years in an America where Will Smith often has been the most popular movie star in the nation and the world, and where Oprah Winfrey remains the queen of national television talk shows and one of the wealthiest and most powerful entertainment and media arbiters in the nation. Both, not insignificantly, are close friends of Obama's and are believed to be influential informal media advisers to him.
Obama, therefore, represents a comfortable, confident, mainstream African-American community that has "arrived." Because he is not insecure, he is relaxed and confident in not only maintaining traditional family values in his own household but urging them on black fathers around the nation.
Leaders of Jackson's generation would certainly uphold and counsel the same values privately as Obama did, but sometimes they might not say so publicly for fear of appearing to tear down what they regarded as their communities' fragile self-esteem.
The journey in confidence and self-awareness that African-American leaders have made over the past 40 years following King's death, from Jackson to Obama, is one that Irish- and then Jewish-Americans and other groups made before them. The African-Americans were in America as the first immigrants -- brought over involuntarily as slaves from the early 17th century. But full political and social emancipation only came 100 years after slavery was abolished in the great civil-rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.
Jackson's criticism of Obama was petty and unfounded. His blustering insult was inexcusable, and his rapid apology and retreat from it, while necessary, demeaned his own manhood, and nobody else's.
Jackson also, without meaning to, established Obama as the ruling bull elephant on the block. Jackson needlessly insulted Obama; Obama stood his ground with dignity, and then it was Jackson who backed down. White Americans as well as black ones will respond to that.
Obama, of course, is no wimp: The way he kept his cool and defeated Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., in the national Democratic primary contest was proof of that. Clinton was a formidable campaigner, albeit a catastrophically inept organizer, and Obama saw her off. He even kept his temper and his dignity when Clinton made outrageous remarks, too, implicitly suggesting the possibility Obama might be assassinated, as Democratic front-runner Sen. Robert Kennedy was in 1968, was a reason she should stay in the race.
Jesse Jackson passed a torch of moral and stylistic leadership to Obama this week. He did not do it willingly and in no way gracefully -- but he was forced to do so nevertheless.