Like cool water rushing over polished rocks, Jonathan Jackson flows around the edges of the room—a light touch on this one’s shoulder, an easy grin flashed to that one, a rapid handshake and off to the next eddy of suits and sequins and mink coats.
Jonathan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s second-oldest son, is not running for public office—though his brother Jesse Jr. is—but it’s hard to tell that by the way he is working the crowd in this ballooned-and-bannered ballroom of the Holiday Inn in south suburban Matteson.
A woman reaches out, grabs hirn, hugs his stout frame hard, like an aunt wrapping her nephew in an I-deeeclare-you’ve-grown-so-big-and-fast kind of squeeze—and Jonathan erupts in a belly laugh. Turns out he knows the lady. In fact, he probably knows everybody who has braved the late-December snow tonight to watch Jesse Jr. claim Mel Reynolds’s vacated Second District congressional seat. As the moment approaches, Jonathan climbs up onstage, bobbing his head to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” He thrusts out his arms to the crowd—a preacher to his congregation—egging on chants of “Jesse, Jesse, Jesse; Junior, Junior, Junior.”
When the first Jackson ever to be elected to public office finallly emerges from behind a curtain, he is not alone. His wife and sister-in-law and all but one of his four brothers and sisters are close behind him. Towering over the group is the six-foot-three-inch Rev. Jackson, who stands silently mouthing parts of Jesse Jr. ’s victory night speech. His wife, Jacqueline, squeezes in close, loops her arm through her husband’s, and softly pats his chest. They make a strikingly handsome and relaxed backup—as if they had been campaigning forever, which, of course, they nearly have. A social scientist studying the scene couldn’t help but conclude that po1iticking passed through genes.
In fact, since Rev. ]ackson’s heir apparent has stepped into the spotlight, there has been talk of a Jackson political dynasty. The notion has a pleasingly nonpartisan, even racially healing quality. I share this with Jonathan, and he yanks me down to earth.
“My great-grandmother is in a coma now, but she cannot read and that was in large part by law,” he says. “She was born without a birth certificate; couldn’t go to the hospital. That’s a long way from the Forbeses and the Bushes and the Kennedys. I don’t think she ever even got to Boston. But her grandson ran for president, and now her great-grandson is a congressman.”
This conflicting world of assimilation and segregation, privilege and poverty is where the Jackson children grew up. Raised largely on the city’s South Side, in a comfortably affluent section of Jackson Park Highlands, they have been simultaneously protected from the public and pushed to center stage. As a result, they behave like polished politicos one moment, then spontaneous, frank young adults the next—all while excruciatingly conscious of who their fater is and what that means.
Most of them, at one time or another, have innocently reached for the family phone only to hear a litany of invective or death threats meant for their dad; security guards and policemen were so familiar that they played basketball with the boys in the back yard. When a 23-year-old Jesse Jr. took the mike during the 1988 Democradc National Convention—where the Jackson children were presented to the world like a political von Trapp family—it was the first time most people had heard speak, though be had been before large crowds since the age of 15.
But for friends, relatives, and the Reverend’s political acquaintances, the door is perennially open; as many as 60 guests might stop by on Christmas or Thanksgiving. And everyone from Nigerian ambassadors to Aretha Franklin to Al Sharpton has knocked on the front door, slipped off his shoes at the insistence of Jacqueline Jackson, and made himself at home. Few reporters, however, have spent much time inside. “We’re not a secret family,” explains Mrs. Jackson, 52, while making plans for what will turn out to be nearly 40 hours of interviews with the entire family. “I just watned my children to have the right to screw up and breathe.”
“Hey! Does Jesse Jackson live here?” demands a young boy, temporarily halted in his plan to knock snow off every neatly clipped hedge along this quiet stretch of South Constance Avenue. “Ain’t that a ‘J’ up there?” he insists, jabbing a gloved hand toward a slightly bent iron script letter hanging on the second story of the Jackson home. “Or is it an ‘S’?”
Once inside the spacious Tudor-style house—a formal but cluttered space dominated by dark, Gothic wooden furniture—I mention the boy’s confusion to Yusef, who at 25 is Rev. Jackson’s youngest son. Still built like the football player he once was, Yusef settles into one of his mother’s wing-backed cream-colored living-room chairs. Looming over his shoulder is the portrait of a young, Afroed Rev. Jackson that hangs above the fireplace. “You know,” he says with a coy smile, “our family has debated that for the last 25 years.”
As the offspring of one of the world’s most controversial orators, life for the Jackson kids—Jackie Jr., Yusef, Jonathan, Jesse and Sandra, who range in age from 20 to 32—often operates like one long debate. “There are a lot of family meetings; you know, we talk a lot,” says the baby. “To present an idea in this house is kind of a big deal, because you’re going to be tested. You’ve got to know your stuff.”
It is as if they have spent their lives training to take on the world with words—though each has a markedly different style. Jesse 31, is the glibbest sibling, consciously peppering conversations with everything from rap lyrics to Biblical passages. Jonathan, 30, seems the most relaxed, the quickest to smile, and when offered a chair, he is likely to collapse into an informal slouch, his long legs thrust out front. As the youngest Jackson male, Yusef has the liberty of acting the clown, but he also seems bent on gaining respect. While talking, he sometimes draws out his vowels (as in gaain”) or hyperaccentuates syllables like an old Southern senator. Sandra and Jackie Jr., who bookend their brothers chronologically and emotionally, exude seriousness, though Santita’s heightened formality sometimes borders on stiffness.
None of them lives in the family home now (though Yusef and Jackie Jr. are only away at school), but the layout of the common areas still reflects an inclination toward group discussion. In the living room, half a dozen comfortable chairs are scattered around a coffee table that is piled high with glass figurines, stuffed animals, and a two-foot white and gold angel. There’s a couch in the room, too, but a note pinned to it warns: BROKEN LEG ON SOFA. DO NOT SIT. “It’s a lie,” Mrs. Jackson confides one evening. “I just didn’t know any other way to keep them from sitting down; it’s a Duncan Phyfe, you know.” She has several other antique pieces in the dining room—all stern, ornately carved dark wood—but the centerpiece is a 15-foot table, with room enough for 20 guests.
It was here that Rev. Jackson, now 54, plotted his 1984 and 1988 Presidential campaigns and mapped out the rise of the Rainbow Coalition and the 1982 boycott of Anheuser-Busch, which gained jobs and corporate power for blacks. The persistent presence of political discussion right in their own home meant the Jackson children were trained to think about world issues and business concerns early on, and exposed to the kind of people their parents hoped they would someday become.
Jonathan, who as an entrepreneurial youngster mowed lawns, sponsored parties, and ran a memorabilia concession at Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity, the economic empowerment organization Rev. Jackson founded in 1971), recalls pulling up a chair as early as age ten. Over the years, he met men like Percy Sutton, an advisor to his father and Malcolm X’s attorney, and Travis Bell, one of the first African-Americans to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Jonathan, who went on to earn a degree in business Northwestern, worked briefly for Bell, and says, “That was when I knew which way I wanted to go.”
Which was the effect Rev. Jackson had hoped for. “You must get children in the environment of achievers,” he tells me one evening, as he has no doubt preached many times before. “The environment of achievers can be contagious.”
The Reverend practices what he preaches; in fact, while trying to decide which seminary to attend, he reportedly was convinced to enroll at the Chicago Theological Seminary by a mentor who argued that no other city was large enough to house the aspiring preacher’s soul. So in 1964, he moved up from South Carolina with his then 20-year-old wife and one-year-old Santita. About six months later, the family welcomed its first son, Jesse Jr., who narrowly escaped being named Selma in honor of the Alabama starting point for a civil-rights march Jesse Sr. was at while his wife was giving birth.
The Jacksons moved into their current house around the time Yusef was born—having lived for a while in apartments and university housing—and since then, except for the time the Reverend spent in Washington, D.C., as a shadow senator, Constance Avenue has been home. It’s a world where neighbors watch over one another’s children and where the most startling sound is often a barking dog. All the children attended nearby public elementary schools, and say that ballet lessons, piano lessons, and football practice helped them maintain relatively normal lives—though seeing your father on the evening news as often as you see him at home and spending weekends and holidays picketing local businesses are hardly normal by most standards.
“There are many things about our lives that are atypical,” admits Yusef, who was saddled with the nickname Tootie while growing up. “You know: ‘Tootie, fruity with the big bootie,”’ he singsongs. “I was sort of . . . cherub-like as a child.” At the age of 11, chubby-cheeked Tootie was marching with air-traffic controllers, or carrying a protest sign on the sidewalk in front of Jane Byrne’s Chicago Fest while most kids were gorging themselves on hot dogs and ribs. “We learned from a very early age,” says Yusef, “what we were doing was for the betterment of the world.”
It’s a ponderous lesson for a child to absorb, but then, the Jackson children had seen with their own eyes the kind of suffering most kids only hear about in stories meant to cajole them into eating their lima beans. From early on, they traveled extensively with their parents—to Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America. Santita met Fidel Castro at a children’s celebration in Cuba even before her parents were introduced to him. Not much later, she trekked through caves in Ghana where slaves were once housed. “It was a moving experience, even for a seven-year old,” she says. “It shaped my life, and helped me see what my parents were fighting for in terms of making sure that everyone has their fair share of the pie.”
Both Jonathan and Jesse Jr. followed Rev. Jackson on hostage rescue missions as adolescents, then began seeing themselves in the news, an experience they found intoxicating. “You begin to feel like you’re in the cockpit of American history and you’re making it,” says Jonathan. “Then, after the campaign, this controversial show comes on TV—The Cosby Show—where the debate is: ‘This really isn’t a black family, because blacks don’t live like this.’ Then you see Bryant Gumbel; then you see Oprah—I mean, you see blacks portrayed differently than ever before.
“All this happened at the same time; so I saw a complete shift. Then some kid would be saying, ‘I want to one day run for President,’ and it was no longer a farfetched idea—I’rn talking a real possibility.”
But for every such positive, empowering image burned into their brains, there was a negative one to match it. Rev. Jackson won worldwide acclaim for his 1984 rescue of Lieutenant Robert Goodman, the navy pilot held prisoner in Syria, but was later labeled an opportunist for flying to Iraq to free hostages held by Saddam Hussein. When I ask. Jonathan what stands out about his trip to Baghdad, he says it wasn’t meeting Hussein or seeing Kuwait City, but rather the hostility hurled at his father by the hostages when the plane that had been scheduled to fly them out was late. “They were just shouting, ‘Get us out of here,’” says Jonathan, like he was working for them or was their hired skycap.”
As a result, family members tend to discount public and media opinion, and in some ways, this has served to distance them from the world. “I’m not very trusting,” admits Jackie. Why should I be? I’ve got a family to trust.”
She sounds almost blasé in her declaration, but then the Jackson children have grown accustomed to the wrath that has been directed at their dad. In May of 1981, during the week of Santita’s high-school prom, Parade magazine named the Reverend one of the 15 most likely targets for an assassination, along with President Reagan and Ted Kennedy.
“It was devastating to read,” Santita says. “I was in class, so I clipped it and put it in my notebook.” She hid the article, but several days later, while discussing whether her father would be home to send her off to prom, Santita says, Rev. Jackson began to cry. “He told me, ‘I never expected to live this long—to see you do this well. . . . I look at Martin’s kids and he never got to walk them across the stage and watch them get their high-school diplomas, and Malcblm didn’t get to watch his kids either, or Medgar . . .,’ all the way down the line,” says Santita, “and, of course, he didn’t even know I’d read that in the paper that week.”
A history of similar incidents—like the two women who at different times came to the house, each claiming that she was Mrs. ]ackson—has made the family exceptionally vigilant. As a result, the house is never empty, and several times a day there is a chaotic changing-of-the-guard discussion about who has keys and who will be watching the house. “We didn’t have the luxury of rebellion [while growing up],” Santita says, “because we didn’t know whether Mother and Daddy would be here next year.”
The sentiment is echoed by all the Jackson children, including Jonathan, who for that reason felt particularly frustrated by 1994 Federal allegations that he was helping smuggle drugs. He and Jesse Jr. were reportedly taped talking in code with family friend Pius Ailernen, a Nigerian oilman, about buying and selling heroin. They were finally cleared when prosecutors admitted there was no evidence and conceded that what they heard, as Jonathan and Jesse Jr. contended, could well have been discussions about oil and entertainment deals. But the story still reached the papers, and the brothers and their father called a press conference to publicly deny the allegations.
The brouhaha forced Jonathan to postpone an internship at the Chicago Board of Trade (he eventually completed it and now earns his living as an trader there). “That stuff lingers—especially if you’re a young black male in in business,” he says bitterly. “You don’t see enough of us in business anyway, and then to have something like this?
“The black and white of this is that if I weren’t a Jackson, this would never have happened to me.” He shivers in the icy wind whipping down Constance Avenue as we trudge from his and his wife’s brick bungalow to his parents’ home across the street. “But I also know that if I wasn’t Jackson and that had happened to me, be in jail today, and Jesse Jr. wouldn’t be a congressman. So, once again, I’m glad I had my daddy.”
Dad has always said that the greatest strength in life is in the middle,” Santita tells me one evening as the family finishes an exuberant game of Jenga, in which players try to move wooden blocks from the bottom of a tower to the top without destroying the tower. As often happens in the Jacksons’ house, a simple pastime has been turned into a useful metaphor. “The earth revolves around a gravitational center,” she continues, “and our family, in many respects, has been stabilized by our mother.”
As the Reverend’s 24-hour, all-things-to-all-people brand of politics often puts him in three cities in one day, it has largely fallen to Mrs. Jackson to set goals and lay down rules. Her approach is old-fashioned, even rigid, a reflection of her strong religious upbringing—but she and her husband have not allowed their spiritual underpinnings to prevent them from seeking earthly rewards. Though the family has never lived lavishly, their estimated worth in 1989, as reported in Chicago, was $1 million. The last time the Reverend was required to disclose his finances was in 1987, prior to his second Presidential campaign. His income then, listed as $209,358, was earned through speaking engagements and his CNN television show, though he also owned shares in Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, a minority-owned radio and cable television company.
“[Blacks] lived for years with spiritualism but without any materialism,” Rev. Jackson told a Playboy magazine writer in 1969. “Now we’d like to try to balance the two.” The family has spent a lifetime doing just that, which explains their Wednesday evening Bible discussions and Mrs. Jackson’s full-length fur coat. While growing up, the children could not bring friends into the house during I the week, had to keep the radio turned low, and were not allowed to watch prime-time TV. Vacations were rare, except for trips down South to visit grandparents or to annual conventions held all over the country for Operation PUSH, which quickly became an extended family for the kids. The entire Jackson family spent most Saturday mornings at PUSH’s South Side headquarters, where the Reverend held services.
Yusef admits the rules weren’t always easy to accept, especially since one of them was no gifts at Christmas. Instead, the family spends the morning ministering to prisoners at Cook County Jail. “When I was young, it was just exciting to be with Dad, especially because we’d always bring different celebrities with us [to prison]. But during my difficult adolescent years, I remember wondering, Why are we here?”
Life wasn’t always a lesson, though, and the family clearly derives tremendous joy from the giddy, spur-of-the-moment mania that often rules: Once while attending law school, Jesse Jr. received a midweek call from his father inviting him to jet to Las Vegas to watch Mike Tyson fight. The trip took less than 24 hours, putting him back in class the next morning with the same students he’d left the afternoon before. “When I told them, ‘I was at the fight last night,’” he recalls with obvious relish, “they said ‘No way.’”
Yusef’s tendency to refer to sitcoms suggests that the TV rule eventually slacked off, and by the time Jackie Jr. was born, the family was taking trips to Hilton Head Island and Disney World. While Rev. Jackson ran Black Expo, a Chicago showcase for African-American companies and artists, the Jackson children hung out backstage with Richard Pryor and Isaac Hayes.
Even the rule banning presents has changed: On the day after Christmas, Jonathan appears at his parents’ doorstep cradling an armful. And while Mrs. Jackson and I talk one afternoon, she fusses over a Jackie Onassis doll—a gift from her husband. It’s the newest addition to a collection she started with her daughters’ childhood playthings. “Some of them were in perfect condition,” she says. “My kids told me I never let them play with them. It was like, ‘Don’t you do that to that doll!’”
On Christmas Day, Mrs. Jackson is bubbly as usual, presiding over a feast that includes turkey, ham, roast beef, greens, green beans, corn, chitlins, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and an assortment of pies and cakes. Nearly 20 guests have dropped by, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and his family. After nearly everyone has finished eating, Mrs. Jackson clinks her glass with a spoon, letting the group know that it’s time to pick this year’s debate topic.
Last year the family discussed the O.J. Simpson trial, another year Lorena Bobbitt. Sometimes the arguments get so heated that the antagonists are sent out to the backyard basketball court to settle them. Tonight, Mrs. Jackson suggests talking about the film Waiting to Exhale, which examines the difficulty four black women have finding caring, supportive men. Santita has seen the movie and says she “drew umbrage with the plot.” Rev. Sharpton, who has been sitting quietly most of the evening, dressed in trousers and a cardigan, says he can’t believe that Whitney Houston made the movie, and calls her character a tramp.
In a deep, theatrical voice, Mrs. Jackson announces that the film has created the definitive statement of how black men will be treated, meaning they’ll be shown love when they’re loving, but shown the door (or worse) when they act like dogs. Apparently uncomfortable with the conversation, Rev. Jackson stands up, fingering the back of his chair, then turns and quietly heads upstairs.
Mrs. Jackson’s comments may have wounded her husband’s pride, but one who has followed the family can deduce, her bark is worse than her bite. For years, as unsubstantiated rumors of affaiis have dogged Rev. Jackson, his wife has remained unruffled. “I don’t believe in examining sheets, she lectured a Life magazine reporter in July 1897. “That’s a violation of privacy. If my husband has committed adultery, he better not tell me. And you better not go digging into it because I’m trying to raise a family and won’t let you be the one to destroy it.”
The day after Christmas, the Reverend is a bit sullen while the rest of the family giggles, pokes, and poses its way through a formal portrait session. “Look at how tight your smile is—you have got to loosen up,” Mrs. Jackson warns, while her children pseudoseriously nod. Trying to twist her husband’s body so it’s more directly facing her, she demands: “Look at me adoringly.” Rev. Jackson delivers a squinty-eyed leer. “No! Not like that—like this,” Mrs. Jackson instructs, placing her hands under her chin, smiling. Her eyelashes flutter like a hummingbird’s wings. Rev. Jackson shrugs his shoulders and sighs.
“So how is our nervous interviewee?” Mrs. Jackson asks me, glancing protectively at Jackie Jr., who is curled up in a low-backed pink-velvet chair. As the youngest family member, Jackie Jr. is the least practiced with the press, though she has had her share of exposure. At 12, she was the first to to introduce her father to delegates at the 1988 Democratic Convention. The next night, Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis applauded her performance, calling her the hope for the future.
But rather than feeling honored, she felt unfairly spotlighted. “He kind of put a burden on my shoulders because he turned me into another person,” she says softly, shyly tugging at her T-shirt. “I thought I was invincible [after that] and really believed I’d done something, even though I had no merits of my own.
Afterward, life at the Fay school, the private Boston academy she had been attending, grew difficult. “I didn’t work, I didn’t take things very seriously, didn’t want to do anything; I wasbored all the time.” And, in the unkindest assessment any Jackson sibling can offer (ironic, given their father’s show-business friends), Jackie Jr. admits that she was “just an entertainer.”
Using intervention-like tactics, her brothers, sister, and parents flew in and out of Boston, eventually helping her get back on track. She’s now studying psychology at North Carolina Agricultural Technical State University, the alma mater of two of her brothers and both her parents. The effects of the Dukakis remark left both Jackie Jr. and her mother especially wary of uncontrolled media attention, which explains why Mrs. Jackson persistently flits around the room where Jackie Jr. and I are talking. “My dauther to me is not an adult yet, and this is a political business and we should handle it just like that,” she says, instructing Jackie that she should not “push any answers because it can be held against you when you run for mayor. Jackie Jr. giggles, as if her mother were only joking. But then she catches herself, and nods more seriously. Apparently, she’s heard the warning before.
Keeping up with the Jacksons, especially when you are one, is not an easy task, and the girls seem to have struggled with it the most. Santita, a National Merit scholar who earned a four-year scholarship to Howard University, dropped out a semester shy of graduation. “I had really had it—I could not perform anymore,” she says. “I know that I will eventually finish, but what I really needed to do was get ahold of myself and figure out where I was, because I was really lost in a fog.”
She worked for awhile in Washington, D.C. as an aide to Illinois congressman Gus Savage, then moved to New York. Several months later, she mailed a surprise package to her parents—a demo tape of her singing. “Music was what I always wanted to do,” she says. “All of my close friends really knew that. But it was something I could never articulate with my family.”
For awhile, she performed as a backup singer for Roberta Flack—a close friend of her father’s and a major contributor. Santita now lives in Harlem, and sings gospel at a network of churches with open mikes. Her parents accepted her decision, but not right away. “It was like, ‘Sing? I can’t believe it,’ recalls Mrs. Jackson. “She did not sing in the house—well, maybe in the shower—so I said, ‘Let me hear you sing!”
“We are the product of great expecta_tions,” Jesse Jr. adds later. “So if Jesse Jr., wanted to be a doctor, that wasn’t enough; he could be surgeon general. If I wanted to be a lawyer: not enough. If I had a law firm, every indigent person in Chicago—they’ d certainly be welcome—but they’d be coming to me because Jesse Jackson’s in the law business: ‘I know I can call him for help. I ain’t got no money, but . . .’ So there’s an expectation beyond me that is always—we can’t say no.”
For the most part, the Jackson brothers have experienced gentler course curves than their sisters, but there have been curves nonetheless. After childhood tests indicated that Jesse Jr. was bright but hyperactive and aggressive, says Rev. Jackson, he and his wife decided to enroll both Jesse Jr. and Jonathan in Le Mans Academy, an Indiana military school. “I felt they needed a regirnented form of discipline,” says Mrs. Jackson. The Reverend says they were looking for “an environment free of my being on the radio and TV every day, but one that was close enough for them to be home for the holidays and gave them some space for independent development.”
Later, Jesse Jr. and Yusef attended the posh St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., where ambassadors and dignitaries regularly send their kids. “At St. Alban’s, you’re competing with other children whose fathers and mothers live in the danger zone and are also change agents,” says the Reverend proudly.
All three boys played high-school and college football, like their father. Eventually, though, “they felt [the schools] kind of wanted to turn them into meat,” recalls Frank Watkins, Jackson’s long-time aide and now press secretary. “But the boys were academically inclined, so their last they didn’t play.”
After earning a degree in government and foreign affairs, Yusef was accepted into the University of Virginia’s law chool; he will graduate this year but says he’s more interested in a career in
“My parents never pushed me anywhere insofar as ‘This is your role in life, follow this path,” Yusef says one afternoon, while explaining how each of his siblings has been allowed to define “service"—their father’s guiding principle—in his or her own unique way. Halfway through, he stutters to a stop, announcing, “I’m really sorry . . . I’ve lost my point.” This remark, repeated at several points during our talk, has the vague echo of a politician pushed off point, struggling to get back to his agenda, and lends a practiced quality to Yusef’s speech. Later he adds, a bit apologetically, “My intention is to serve, and I’ve sort of found a niche in the banking industry . . . that isn’t too far off my family’s path.”
Business and finance also intrigued Jesse Jr. and Jonathan, both of whom graduated with degrees in business administration from North Carolina A&T. But after they returned to Chicago, Jesse Jr. recalls, his father “sat down and had a long talk with Jonathan and I about how we have to see more than just ourselves—how money is only one dimension of a complete life.”
Despite that discussion Jonathan still opted to earn his M.B.A., but says that he struggled with his decision. “I can see the difference between business and the ministry,” he says. “The ministry can lead you to a right-and-wrong position; business’s instinct is compromise. When you get in business, you’ll have some rich friends, and rich people ask for more favors than poor people and they wind up happen_ing—but at poor people’s expense.”
Jesse who looks as if he was born in a dark-blue suit, says his father’s advice helped him to “loosen up” about future goals, although how he interpreted “loose” is open to debate. After graduating from A&T in three years (in part to work on his father’s campaign and in part to make up for the extra year he spent at St. Albans completing a Spanish requirement), Jesse Jr. went on to earn a degree at the Chicago Theological Seminary and a law degree from the University of Illinois—completing both in less than the usual time. Jesse Jr. says he used money he made on his own speaking circuit (he charges between $2,500 and $7,500 per speech) to pay for both.
During law school, friends recall, Jesse Jr. would often leave on a Friday afternoon and return late Sunday, having toured several cities over the weekend, campaigning for his father or other candidates or speaking on his own. “He was always very disciplined, neat, and tended to details,” recalls Martin King, who worked on Jesse Jr.’s congressional campaign and attended law school with him and his wife, Sandra, now an attorney. “He was meticulous—I don’t know how to stress that enough.”
Jesse Jr. looks incredulous when I suggest that he’s behaving like a young man in a hurry. But then he stiffens and “Well, let’s look at the other side of the coin: If my name had been Jesse Jackson and I didn’t have certain accomplishments at age 30, the press and others would be saying, ‘The kid’s unqualified; what the hell’s he been doing? Look at the opportunity he’s had.
“I saw in and what people di to my father by saying he was unqualified. So I said if I ever ran for public office, they would never hold that over my head. I thought a lot of things through.” Part of what he decided was that there was no need to run for office first.
“There’s a 28-year-old Kennedy in Congress and … my peers are in Congress, the House of Representatives,” he says. “I went to St. Albans with ambassadors’ children, kids whose parents were oil ministers. So why shouldn’t I function in the national debate?”
Fearful that his point isn’t enough, he asks to use my pen to outline an analogy that draws on his favorite sport: fishing. “First of all, the key to fishing is preparation,” he tells me, jotting down points as he goes. ‘‘You’re going to have good days and bad days, and fishing is a peculiar discipline. It’s a discipline in that if you’re fishing for a certain kind of fish, you have to use the right bait. All sermons, for example, don’t work on all people; it requires a certain level of preparation for speaking to this crowd and mother level for this crowd over here.”
Since you don’t catch fish every day, he explains, you’ve got time to think: for instance: Bowen High School . . . metal detectors . . . children forced to wear uniforms because of gangs . . . ‘absence of U.S. Steel . . . 600 acres of abandoned property—that does not equal running for alderman,” he says, enumerating key issues from his campaign platform. “That signals a run for Congress. That’s a macro problem. And if you have that macro understanding, go to where the big fish are.”
There is an astonishing physical connection between Rev. Jackson and Jesse Jr. that often plays itself out like a dance. Together onstage at PUSH, they’ll sometimes move or sway in unison, as if someone were tugging a string threaded through them both. During one Saturday sermon, Jesse Jr. jumps up repeatedly in response to what his father is saying; later, while seated, he slumps as if recoiling from the Reverend’s words. They frequently slap each other on the back. At one point during Christmas-morning services at Cook County Jail, Jr. kneels clown while praying and rests his head in his father’s lap.
Moments earlier, Jesse Jr. had been at the microphone, dissuading prisoners’ criminal behavior by explaining that children are less likely to do what parents say, and more likely to do what they do. “I grew up wanting to be just like Dad,” he says, looking back over his shoulder at his father. “Dad wanted to be President.”
Tre is nothing surprising about watching the footsteps of a father fade into his son’s. But Rev. Jackson and Jesse Jr. frequently seem to be wearing the same shoes. The list of contribiitors Jesse Jr. ticks off for his recent campaign—which includes Aretha Franklin, Maya Angelou, U.S. Representatives Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) and Maxine Waters (D-Cal.)—is a who’s who of his dad’s supporters. And on issues, their stances are often identical: political, economic, and educational empowerment for the disenfranchised; social-service support for everyone in the form of health care and housing. One of Jesse Jr.’s first House votes, a legislative paean to big business that will help shield accountants and corporations from lawsuits, was a notable exception. (Frank Watkins says the young congressman now acknowledges that the vote was “a mistake”) But even where they diverge, the two seem oddly connected, as if Jesse Jr. knew he had to be different to fill in the chinks in his dad’s armor.
Jesse Jr. speaks Spanish because Rev. Jackson’s failure to learn French humiliated him when he couldn’t converse with ambassadors from West Africa. And because the elder Jesse Jackson has been chided for his lack of follow-through, Jesse Jr. now refuses to hold meetings unless an aide is present to help him track details and stay on schedule. His penchant for organization is endless, and explains the riot of Post-it notes covering his home calendar and the even spacing of the vertically hung fishing rods that line one of his basement walls. He’s also in the habit of prewriting speeches, then laminating the pages.
By the time Jesse Jr. left his post as the Rainbow Coalition’s national field director, he had set up JaxFax, a weekly newsletter, and put the coalition on the Internet. Half a dozen computers take up increasing space in his home, the building blocks of a system that he says enables him to track voters by name, city, ZIP Code, congressional district—even by hobbies or religious affiliation. He claims that it was his computer knowledge (a legacy from St. Albans) that gave him the edge to leave “his competitors in the dust,” then later conthat his dad “doesn’t even want to use a typewriter. He’s so set in his ways—but he’s coming around.”
Friends also say Jesse Jr. has a zealot’s commitment to completion. “Jesse Jr. will not talk about something he doesn’t think he can accomplish,” says Martin King. But sometimes it sounds as if accomplishing something—anything—is his biggest goal. During a congressional press conference, a reporter asks if Jackson has any short-term goals he wants to accomplish before the March 1996 primary. For a moment he hesitates, then, prompted by a press aide, announces: “I’m having a study done. I want to know what the most successful freshmen have accomplished in their first term. So when the media says that freshman Jesse Jackson, Jr., hasn’t done anything, I can hold up this study and say, ‘I bested the best.”’
Guards at the door. A knot of people near the entrance, down in the guts of the Holiday Inn in Matteson.
“Who are ou with?” someone asks me when I to enter the private meeting room that has been reserved for the Jackson entourage. Who turned the television up so loud? I wonder, craning my neck to get a better view. A broadcaster is announcing Jesse Jr.’s congressional win, reported just moments earlier in a larger room of the hotel. Periodically, people cheer.
Inside, a half-dozen tables overspill with elders and wiggling children, and there’s a balding man who has put too much potato salad on his plate. Rev. Jackson sits at the center of it all: jacket open, tie loosened, teetering back on a small metal chair. Left arm out—someone hands him a glass of soda. I’m told to approach. “Hey. Get us a chair over here,” he commands. Then, speaking low, sometimes mumbling, he forces me to lean in close.
I ask the question everybody’s asking: How does it feel to have your son win elected—something you weren’t able to do? He looks perturbed. “It’s all sweet; ain’t no bitter in it at all. I’ve helped others become congresspersons, and I enjoy that. But this is the first time that the help we’ve given has had this direct a connection to our family.”
Have the years you’ve spent campaigning been worth it, I ask: the time, the emotional roller coaster, the punishing pace? “The only guilt that I have is that I travel too much, often helping ungrateful people. But a part of public service is that you cannot be calculating in your love. You’ve got to help people whether they help you or not.
“You know, I went to Syria and brought Lieutenant Goodman back; went to Cuba and brought Americans and Cubans back; went to Iraq and brought 500 Americans, Canadians, and French people back. We’ve never gotten one Christmas card from them—not one time.
“All I’m saying is,” he adds, his voice nothing more than a low, tired growl, “Sometimes the kind of time that you spend . . . sometimes you wish you’d spent more of it taking the kids to the movies or something.”
A few minutes later, Jesse Jr. enters the room, a kite blown in by a high wind. Aides and assistants and people who have known the Jacksons forever tail him as strides he toward his father. The congressional swearing-in will take place in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, the day after tomorrow, he tells the Reverend, who allows a broad smile to creep across his face. There’s talk about planes and tickets and take-off times and arrivals and what it will cost contituents to caravan to the ceremony—details that operate on Rev. Jackson like air being blown into a balloon.
He turns back to me, revitalized. “Now, where were we?” he asks.