Even in Chicago, a city whose political community is not easily shocked by allegations of corruption, the resignation of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. comes as a bit of a stunner. The word “promising” keeps popping up again and again in news reports as in, for example, this Reuters headline: “Promising Political Scion Resigns.”
Triple-J was showing promise ever since his first national appearance, onstage at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta with his four siblings, introducing their father at the end of his second presidential run. It was a moment of liberal triumph in the decade of Ronald Reagan. Even the haters of their dad’s politics loved those kids.
Seven years later, the Junior Jackson won the special election that followed the resignation of then-Rep. Mel Reynolds, another once-promising star. The Rhodes scholar crashed amid charges of having sexual relations with an underage campaign worker. No, Chicago is not unaccustomed to scandal.
For many, Jackson’s youth, idealism and cheerful salesmanship seemed to offer hope of a new transformational politics for the new century. He was handily re-elected again and again, always keeping reporters and pundits in constant front-leaning speculation about what he would pursue next. Mayor? Senator? Beyond?
Talk of a presidential run ended when his friend and senator, Barack Obama, beat him to the White House. Still, the Junior Jackson remained a man of promise.
Then a dark cloud of suspicion rolled in. Justice Department investigators have been looking into Jackson’s possible misuse of campaign funds and the House Ethics Committee is investigating his dealings with ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now serving time for federal corruption offenses.
Worse, he’s been on leave since June, during which he has been in treatment at the Mayo Clinic for bipolar disorder.
Yet he resigned two weeks after winning a landslide reelection, despite having no visible campaign or public appearances. His constituents would rather take their chances with an absentee Jackson, his supporters tell me, than with another candidate that they did not know as well.
His resignation could end the Ethics Committee probe, which has been looking into whether he promised to raise campaign money for Blagojevich in exchange for appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama. The committee could still decide to release a final report on Jackson, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, but it no longer has the power to punish him.
And his legal team, which includes former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, confirmed news reports that a plea bargain was in the works. His resignation letter acknowledges the Justice Department investigation for the first time and accepts responsibility for “mistakes” that are “my mistakes and mine alone.”
“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” a British writer famously said, “they first make promising.” In the case of Jesse Junior, those words sound sadly prophetic.
He was always so promising that it was hard to tell how much of his support came from his modest legislative achievements vs. the lofty hopes and ambitions he symbolized.
As the namesake son of the nation’s best-known civil rights leader since the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Triple-J tried to be “postracial” before postracial was cool. The junior Jackson proposed a new generation of black leadership that could transcend race and hold itself accountable to actual votes, not just to cheering crowds.
But his larger personal ambitions often were held back ironically by the high name recognition that gave him such a valuable boost.
“Your name,” I asked him during a conversation in his congressional office a couple of years ago. “Do you view it as a blessing or a curse?”
“It’s both,” he declared, after a moment of thought. His efforts to broaden his base often ran up against his father’s controversial reputation. That’s politics — which can be pitiless.
His story of mental illness is particularly sad. My sympathies go out to him and his family.
Some skeptics find his treatment to be a bit too conveniently timed with his legal troubles. Maybe. But he would not be the first rising star who found the pressures of his own promise to be too much to bear.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.