Even by the jaded standards of Illinois politics, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s spending spree with his campaign cash sounds breathtakingly shameless, partly because it sounds so senseless.
Back in the early 1980s, his father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., famously said in a quote that haunted his two presidential campaigns, “I’m a tree shaker, not a jelly maker.”
Now it turns out that his son also was shaking a lot of trees — and spending the fruit on a lifestyle that was lavish enough to impress the Kardashians.
The final tally rung up by prosecutors charged the Illinois Democrat and his wife, former Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, with spending $750,000 in political campaign cash for their own personal use on a bonanza of goodies — including a $43,000 gold-plated Rolex watch, a $1,200 mink reversible parka, a retreat, a cruise and two mounted elk heads.
And there was the memorabilia, including a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents, a $4,600 fedora that belonged to Michael Jackson and other collectables previously owned by Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Eddie Van Halen, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hendrix’ name made me wonder whether the Junior Jackson might have one of that rock star’s lyrics in mind: “Manic depression is a frustrating mess.”
Manic depression is a well-known symptom of bipolar condition, for which Jackson’s family revealed he has been treated by the Mayo Clinic.
That sad diagnosis does not excuse his criminal actions, but it also shouldn’t be ignored. If we can believe the Mayo Clinic, as I do, the diagnosis helps to make some sense out of his bizarre illegal excesses.
Among other symptoms for bipolar disorder listed on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s website are “reckless behavior,” ‘’lack of self control,” ‘’poor judgment” and “spending sprees.”
On top of that, it is not hard to imagine how the pressures of a life spent in the public limelight as the namesake son of a controversial political celebrity, plus the strange sense of entitlement that comes from having people lavish millions of dollars in cash to your campaign funds can distort your perspective.
I’ll leave it to the judge to decide how much that should weigh on the final verdicts.
The two entered his-and-hers guilty pleas recently in U.S. District Court in Washington. Jackson’s sentencing by Judge Robert Wilkins is scheduled for June 28 and his wife for July 1. The prosecution recommended four to five years for Jackson and one to two years for his wife.
“Tell everybody back home I’m sorry I let them down,” he said to a Chicago reporter outside the courtroom.
He let down more than his own constituents. Since his election in 1995, he’s been viewed widely as a man of promise, a potential candidate for mayor, governor and beyond — and a breath of fresh air compared to the old style of “Where’s mine?” Chicago politics. Now he’s better known for the gold Rolex and two stuffed elk heads.
After covering his famous father’s political and civil rights crusades for a couple of decades I, too, had high hopes for his son.
Now I am reminded of San Francisco’s late radio talk show host Lee Rodgers, who died Jan. 31, and his famous motto: “Never fall in love with a politician. They’ll break your heart every time.”
Not that Chicagoans don’t have a lot of reasons to feel cynical by now. “We’re still the most corrupt city and metropolitan area,” says political science Prof. Dick Simpson at the University of Illinois at Chicago — and my alderman before he left City Council years ago.
“We also have the third-most corrupt state, with four of our last seven governors going to jail and 31 aldermen — not including Sandi Jackson, two others on trial now and two others who died before trial.”
Yet he tries not to be too cynical, Simpson says, as he produces more anti-corruption reports, at least some of which the current mayor and governor appear toactually to be reading. Still, getting real reforms passed is never easy. Chicago and Illinois politicians are hardly alone in that, even when they often find unusually creative ways to shock us.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.