Kadner: Jesse Jackson Jr.’s saga of failure and betrayal
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org November 9, 2012 4:06PM
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:36AM
I liked Jesse Jackson Jr.
Not at first. And not in the end.
But during the 17 years he has been congressman, there were times I liked him a lot.
We often had long, rambling telephone conversations.
One minute we would be talking about the construction of a south suburban airport and the next quoting from “The Godfather,” one of his favorite movies.
Early in Jackson’s career, with his father in the news over some controversial statement, he mentioned how much he disagreed with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Although the issue escapes me now, I asked the congressman why he didn’t make a public statement on the matter.
“The racists would love that,” Jackson Jr. said.
“The people who hate my father would love to hear his son saying ‘the Rev. Jackson is wrong.’
“I won’t give them the satisfaction,” he said. “The man’s my father. I love him. And I won’t provide ammunition to his enemies.”
I liked him for that.
One day, I was invited to Jackson’s house, after asking about an accusation that the family actually lived in Washington, D.C., not Chicago.
That’s when I first met Sandi Jackson, who greeted me with, “We laugh at the way you tear into politicians all the time. I told Jesse that he better not do anything stupid or you’ll be writing about him next.”
Jackson chuckled and said, “That’s right. I’m not ever going to do anything that would let you make fun of me.”
That was before a friend of the congressman’s was accused of offering Gov. Rod Blagojevich a bribe in exchange for giving Jackson a U.S. Senate seat.
That was before the public learned Jackson had a “social acquaintance” in Washington, D.C., who was being flown into Chicago by the congressman’s friend.
That was before the FBI began investigating Jackson’s use of campaign funds to buy his “social acquaintance” a $40,000 Rolex watch and to remodel his Washington home.
I liked Jackson before all of that.
We talked often about the previous congressmen from the 2nd Congressional District, Gus Savage and Mel Reynolds.
They both had been involved in sex scandals.
Neither seemed focused on helping the people in the district, which included some of the poorest communities in Illinois.
Jackson vowed he was going to be different.
I believed him.
For years, whenever a story appeared in this newspaper about a south suburban community in crisis, politically or financially, Jackson would call offering to help.
Sometimes he would get a federal agency involved. Sometimes he would call the local political leaders to chastise them or offer advice.
Sometimes he would just say, “What can I do to help?”
I have to tell you that’s pretty unusual.
And I liked that about Jackson.
He had a really thin skin for someone who had always been in the public eye.
When it came to criticism, it was never business with Jackson. It was always personal.
Too often, I believe, he labeled political opponents his enemies, instead of understanding they simply disagreed with him.
After about a decade in office, he would often tell me he should have chosen another line of work.
“I could be making millions of dollars in private business,” he would say. “I don’t need this.”
Maybe that was an early indication he was getting greedy.
I don’t know.
It was right after the conviction of Blagojevich that Jackson and I had our last extensive conversation.
He telephoned, I believe, to make a trial run of an explanation for his behavior before going public.
It was an off-the-record conversation, but at several points I stopped the congressman and told him, “I don’t believe you.”
“But you know me,” I recall him saying repeatedly.
“And I don’t believe you,” I said.
He didn’t give up. He said he never authorized a bribe on his behalf. Jackson explained he had even written letters to supporters warning them that Blagojevich was being watched by the FBI, so they should be careful while promoting Jackson’s bid to replace Barack Obama in the Senate.
Why, after warning his own supporters, would he encourage anyone to offer a bribe on his behalf?
“Congressman, no one’s going to believe you,” I said.
I added something else, but he was still talking so fast I don’t think he stopped to listen.
I told him he could still represent the people he was elected to serve. He could focus on their needs instead of his career.
I believe I mentioned the names Gus Savage and Mel Reynolds and now Jackson himself, as having betrayed those people.
I didn’t like Jackson anymore. But I still held out hope for him.
People want to believe that all newspaper reporters are cynics, but I think most of us are idealists at heart.
But it is easier to be cynical because, more often than not, cynicism will be rewarded by the self-serving actions of elected leaders.
I don’t regret liking Jackson.
In many ways, he seems to be living a Shakespearean tragedy.
He aspired to greatness from the time he was a child watching his father on the national stage.
He dreamed of becoming the first black president and spent more than a dozen years in Congress, only to see his aspirations crushed when Obama seemingly came out of nowhere (from Illinois no less) to steal his legacy and capture the national imagination.
I believe Jackson’s character flaws might have remained buried if it hadn’t been for that series of events.
Relegated to national irrelevance, I think something snapped inside the man.
Whatever led him to this point, Jackson today views his congressional seat as simply a bargaining chip with federal prosecutors for a reduced sentence.
After betraying his wife and himself, deceiving his constituents during this election was probably easy for him.
I never did write anything making fun of Congressman Jackson.
His story is just too damn sad.