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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The cost of ignoring Jackie

Robinson's rule could have kept Espy from trouble

By Jack E. White

TIME magazine

Mike Espy's lawyer Reid Weingarten was right on the money when he dismissed the prosecution's case as a "relentless pursuit of the trivial." Espy's transgressions were of the sort better judged in the court of public opinion than in a court of law. In that venue, he has already been punished. Despite the bravado he flashed on the courthouse steps when he denounced independent counsel Donald C. Smaltz as a "schoolyard bully," Espy knows he blew a historic opportunity by losing sight of age-old black moral traditions.

Back in 1986, when Espy became the first black elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction, he looked like the archetype of a new breed of crossover politician--shrewd enough to reach out to whites by standing up for prayer in schools and by posing in ads for the National Rifle Association. Even some good ole boys predicted that he would someday be Governor or Senator. Though he was doing a terrific job, Espy was forced out of office for chump change. Instead of moving on to a glittering future, he got kicked out of the Cabinet in disgrace and saddled with legal fees of more than $1 million.

All this could have been avoided if Espy had remembered that as the first black Secretary of Agriculture, he would be judged more like Jackie Robinson than Michael Jordan. When he broke baseball's color line in 1947, Robinson set the superhuman standard of conduct for such racial pioneers. He knew that to be considered a success by prejudiced whites, he had to be not only a superstar player but also a paragon of moral behavior. For his first few seasons, he left his combative temper in the locker room, suffered insults without fighting back and played his heart out on the field. He refused to give his opponents a weapon they could use against him, and in the end, earned universal, if in some cases grudging, respect. Fifty years later, Jordan dominates a sport in which blacks are so well established that the color line no longer has meaning. He can get away with behavior that would have got Robinson bounced out of baseball--like visiting a casino in the midst of a play-off series--because no one requires him to be the kind of saint "first blacks" are supposed to be.

Sadly, the President's Cabinet, like the upper echelons of most corporations, remains more like baseball in 1947 than basketball in the '90s. So few blacks have risen to that level that the rules governing first blacks still apply. That is why black parents, including Espy's, admonish their children that they must be twice as prepared--and twice as honest--as their white counterparts if they want to succeed. And why during the glory days of the civil rights movement, activists boasted that they would not swim in the mainstream because it was too polluted. These old strictures, to be sure, were a self-imposed double standard rooted in the gloomy conviction that blacks would never get a fair shake from racist America. But unfair as they were, the precepts had the salutary effect of encouraging blacks both to do their best and keep to the moral high ground.

If Espy had abided by the first-black rules, meeting the standards for Cabinet officers would have been easy. But in this day and age, that would have been asking a lot. Instead, he tried to be like the other Mike: so heroic at his work that even an overzealous prosecutor like Smaltz would forgive him a few nitpicking ethical lapses. As Espy ruefully admitted last week, that was a miscalculation. He said, "I should have tried to be more like Jackie." That's a good motto for all public officials, even if they're not black.


Cover Date: December 14, 1998

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