Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Dark Days

Once one of the most promising politicians in the nation, Jesse Jackson Jr. has seen his career go horribly wrong—marked most recently by his mysterious disappearance and the revelation that he’s suffering from bipolar depression. What happened to Junior?


Jesse Jackson Jr. talks to reporters at the Capitol in 2011. For more photos of Jackson through the years, launch the gallery »
 

On a Friday afternoon in late July, one mystery about Jesse Louis Jackson Jr. that had until then stumped the political grapevine was finally solved: his whereabouts. With the consent of his family, which had miraculously managed to keep the secret for almost two months, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, issued a statement acknowledging that Jackson had checked in “for extensive inpatient evaluation for depression and gastrointestinal issues.”

The Mayo statement, brief as it was, at least represented progress. The disclosure of the 47-year-old congressman’s location followed a string of odd statements and untruthful denials from the Jackson camp that shrouded his condition in secrecy. He had been MIA for two weeks before his office announced on June 25—right before the deadline for independent candidates to challenge Jackson on the November ballot—that the congressman had taken a leave of absence for “exhaustion.” A July 5 statement said he was being treated for “physical and emotional ailments” that were more serious than first disclosed, though his office refused to provide any details. Then, on July 11, word came that Jackson was receiving “intensive medical treatment” at an unnamed inpatient center—later revealed to be Sierra Tucson in Arizona—for a “mood disorder.” On August 13 came a second Mayo statement: Jackson was suffering from bipolar II depression, also known as manic depression.

That distressing piece of news helped tamp down the rumor mill, suicide attempts and alcohol or drug addiction being the most heavily trafficked gossip. And this being Chicago, many political observers speculated all over again that Jackson was still under close scrutiny from federal prosecutors for his alleged role in Blagogate and that his disappearance was somehow legally strategic. Was it a coincidence, they wondered, that Jackson vanished just days before his longtime friend and former campaign fundraiser Raghuveer Nayak, a key figure in the Senate-seat-for-sale scandal, was arrested and indicted on fraud charges involving his outpatient surgery centers?

In 2010, Nayak—under a grant of immunity—told federal investigators that Jackson directed him to offer millions in campaign cash to Governor Rod Blagojevich in exchange for appointing Jackson to Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat. (Jackson has denied making any pay-to-play offers.)

Nayak also told investigators that he paid for plane tickets to fly Giovana Huidobro, a lounge hostess and former swimsuit model who was Jackson’s mistress at the time, from Washington to Chicago on weekends when Jackson returned to his district. (Jackson’s wife, the alderman Sandi Jackson, typically flew to D.C. on the weekends to be with the couple’s two children, Jessica, 12, and Jesse III, 8, who attended school there.) A congressional ethics committee investigation, which began in 2009 but was delayed by the Blagojevich trial, remains open.

Jackson, who at presstime was still at the Mayo Clinic, declined interview requests through his staff. Nor did any of his immediate family or staff agree to comment.

It is a genuinely sad turn of events for the scion of one of the nation’s most prominent black leaders. Before the name Obama was known to Chicagoans, Jesse Jackson’s oldest son was the Great Black Hope of the Democratic Party, a future Speaker of the House—maybe even, it was whispered in some quarters, a president. Few could have predicted that this once rising star would come to such a pass. And it has left concerned Chicagoans wondering about both his health and his political future.

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Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 


Jackson, age three, with his dad at a George McGovern rally in 1968. For more photos, launch the gallery »
 

Jesse Jackson Jr. was once in the vanguard of a new post-civil-rights generation of African American politicians: well schooled, technocratic, and comfortable working across racial lines. In that regard, he differed from his famous father, who rose to political power fighting the white establishment during the civil rights movement—and well beyond—and shaped his politics mostly by race.

The second of five children, Jackson started young. He gave a speech, at age five, standing on a milk crate at the headquarters of his father’s civil rights group, Operation Push. But while he followed his dad’s lead, he didn’t always follow in his footsteps. Growing up, the younger Jackson was often upset by his father’s behavior, sources say.

Three sources once close to Jackson told Chicago that he revealed to them what they describe as a childhood traumatized by the absence of his father—who was often off rallying, protesting, and running for president (twice)—and by his frequent infidelities. “Junior was the most sensitive of the three boys and the closest to his mother, and he saw how hard it was on her,” a former confidant says. “That upbringing of not having Dad around, and having Dad running around, really impacted Jesse. And it’s the source of his insecurity, and the source of why he acts the way he acts.” (The elder Jackson wasn’t even at his namesake’s birth; he was en route to Selma, Alabama, to march with Martin Luther King Jr.)

As a child, Jackson was diagnosed as hyperactive and sent with his brother Jonathan to the LeMans Academy, a military junior high school in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. At St. Albans, the exclusive private high school for boys in Washington, D.C., he exhibited a rebellious streak, earning a reputation as a troublemaker. But he was also a star running back, good enough to attract scholarship offers from such top football schools as Notre Dame.

Instead, Jackson chose North Carolina A&T State University, his father’s alma mater; he graduated magna cum laude. Again like his father, he went on to get a divinity degree (Chicago Theological Seminary), and then added a law degree (University of Illinois), too.

Jackson never sought ordination or admittance to the bar, however. He felt the call—the pressure, maybe—to go into public service and to excel at it. “I grew up in a house with great expectations,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune in 1995. “If I want to be a lawyer, that’s not enough. I need to be a Supreme Court Justice one day. If I wanted to be an elected official, that’s not enough. One day, son, you may be president.”

Jackson is the only one of his siblings to choose elective politics. His older sister, Santita, 49, an on-air pundit at Fox News Channel, produces and cohosts her father’s nationally syndicated radio show. Jonathan, 46, and Yusef, 41, are partners in a lucrative Anheuser-Busch distributorship. (Jonathan is also a director of the Rainbow Push Coalition.) The youngest, Jacqueline, 37, stays out of the public eye.

Jackson first pursued a congressional seat in 1995 in a special election to fill the vacancy left by disgraced incumbent Mel Reynolds, who resigned ten days after being convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault and child pornography involving a 16-year-old. The field Jackson faced was formidable: It included Emil Jones, majority leader of the Illinois Senate, and state lawmakers Monique Davis and Alice Palmer. Palmer gave newcomer Barack Obama the green light to pursue her place in the Illinois General Assembly when she made her bid for Reynolds’s seat. (After losing in the primary, she tried to reclaim her seat, but Obama refused to pull out of the race.)

Jackson won—but was livid when his father upstaged his election night victory party with a long speech that pushed the new congressman’s own speech to well past the 10 o’clock news.

Tension between the two built still more, a confidant says, when the elder Jackson counseled Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. As his son knew—and as would become public years later—the Operation PUSH founder was having an affair with a staffer with whom he would father a child. Jackson feared that the affair would be exposed and his family broken apart. At times, father and son spoke to each other through intermediaries, according to a source once close to the family.

Despite those tensions, it didn’t take long for Jackson to become a media darling. The full package—smart, charming, handsome—he was crowned by People as the sexiest politician in 1997. That same year, Newsweek listed him as one of the 100 people to watch in the new millennium. Early backers included Warren Beatty, Maya Angelou, and Bill Cosby.

He got off to a fast start in Washington, too, becoming a fervent and dependable voice for progressive causes. He went years without missing a floor vote. And he scored much-needed federal dollars for a wide array of infrastructure projects for his South Side district. Championing the idea that the long-neglected South Side and its suburbs should look like the more prosperous North Side, he became obsessed with creating a third regional airport on the farmlands of south suburban Peotone—an elusive goal so far.

Along the way, Jackson displayed a showman’s sense of theatre. A black belt in tae kwon do, he once challenged a Republican lawmaker to a fight on the House floor. But there was real passion there. When few, if any, elected officials in Chicago—including Obama—dared to criticize Mayor Richard M. Daley, Jackson spoke out about the “smog of corruption and cover-ups” in Daley’s administration, emerging as a defiant voice of hope and change.

By 2004, though, Jackson’s energy was flagging. He later said in interviews that he felt generally unwell and out of shape. He blamed his weight gain—from 195 pounds in his freshman term to as much as 312, according to a report in Jet magazine—on his penchant for drive-through tacos after long days on the Hill. Diet and exercise, including martial arts, didn’t seem to help.

So he turned—as his sister Santita had earlier that year—to a type of weight-loss surgery called a duodenal switch. The procedure, which involves removing about 80 percent of the patient’s stomach, aims, among other things, to reduce the calories the body is able to absorb from food. Though duodenal switch surgery can result in easier weight loss than less-complicated gastric bypass surgeries, it isn’t performed as often, in part because it carries a higher risk of nutritional deficiencies.

Jackson shed 50 pounds in nine months—though at first he didn’t tell many people how. (Sources say Jackson had the operation in San Francisco, perhaps to avoid being recognized at a Chicago hospital.) When the Chicago Sun-Times asked him about his leaner physique a few months after the surgery, Jackson answered that he was exercising and eating better and receiving “shots in the butt” to boost his metabolism.

A week later, he recanted: “Until now, I hadn’t publicly discussed the surgery because my daily focus has been on the overall lifestyle changes that are necessary to improve my long-term health,” he wrote in a letter to the paper.

* * *

While he was seeding his district with federally funded projects, Jackson was also building his own political minimachine that disposed of hack after hack in the predominantly African American wards in the city and the south suburban legislative districts. He replaced the departees with supposedly reform-minded politicians who fit his mold, including the state representative David Miller; Robin Kelly, now the chief administrative officer for Cook County; James Meeks, the former state senator, whom Jackson helped get elected first as an independent; Larry Rogers Jr., of the Cook County Board of Review; and the aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) and Anthony Beale (9th Ward).

Jackson’s political organization, says Don Rose, the veteran political consultant, “isn’t like the old machines of yore, built on a huge army of workers rewarded with patronage jobs, but is more candidate based, in which Jackson trades his technical know-how and campaign apparatus and strategies.”

It was brilliant in its own way. Jackson endorsed reformers over previously immovable party regulars, regardless of race or party. It burnished a brand and also built a coalition that he hoped would prove useful down the line.

In 2005, he found himself being talked up for a mayoral run. In retrospect, it turned out to be the high point of his career, for by now his prospects on Capitol Hill had stalled. Not hewing lockstep to the party line kept him from rising into Democratic leadership, as did his distaste for party fundraising (which helped Rahm Emanuel gain influence). And while bipartisan at home, he was ideologically more liberal than his party’s leadership in Washington.

Jackson wasn’t serious about running for mayor at first; he just liked having the platform that came with being a prospective candidate. But at some point, he was seduced into taking it seriously. In September 2006, he set up an exploratory committee to challenge Mayor Daley (for which he raised about $30,000) and embarked on a “listening tour” of all 50 wards.

What spoke loudest, though, was the sound of checkbooks slamming shut. Daley had the town locked tight. “It’s virtually impossible for you to raise money [in Chicago] if you’re challenging the mayor,” Jackson told the Tribune in 2007. “People spurn you.” (Of the 28 donors to his exploratory committee, 17 lived outside Illinois.)

When the Democrats won back the House in the 2006 midterms, Jackson had a face-saving out—and he quickly bailed on the mayor’s race. Now part of the majority, his line went, he could do more for Chicago from Washington than from City Hall.

After gaining a seat on the Appropriations Committee, Jackson bragged in an interview, “I’m Dan Rostenkowski” (the all-powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee). It wasn’t the first time Jackson displayed outsize ambition. During a 2005 interview for a profile in this magazine, he joked about being on Mount Rushmore. “I want to be a founding father,” he said.

But mostly, Jackson’s congressional career carried on much as before. The man of ambition who wanted to change the world remained stuck worrying about the Dixie Square Mall. By many accounts, he grew increasingly frustrated, especially after another South Sider—Barack Obama—stormed the national political stage and leapfrogged Jackson on his way to the U.S. Senate.

“Here’s a guy who frankly expected a lot of himself,” says one major Democratic fundraiser who was once close to Jackson. “I can remember going back to 2005, after Barack had won the Senate seat, and Jesse articulated his frustration that he was in line first, and . . . Barack was passing him by.” (Obama’s rise also stung the elder Jackson, says a source once close to the family’s inner circle: “He thought that should have been Jesse Jr.”)

At other times, though, Jackson expressed relief that the pressure of being “the One” had shifted to Obama. He dutifully served in the background as a national campaign cochair for Obama and frequently appeared in the media as a forceful surrogate—no time more than after his father, in a comment caught on a TV microphone that he thought was turned off, said he wanted “to cut [Obama’s] nuts off” for “talking down to black people.” Still, it had to rankle the man who had recently backed out of the Chicago mayoral race to watch Obama become the leader of the free world.

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Photograph: Declan Haun/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

 


Jackson with his children at his wife’s 2007 victory party. For more photos, launch the gallery »
 

Jackson’s reputation as a reformer first took a hit when he helped elect his wife to the City Council in 2007. It smacked of the kind of friends-and-family politics practiced more readily by his political foes, even if Sandi had already been immersed in national politics, including positions at the Democratic National Committee and a senior post at the Export-Import bank (appointed by Bill Clinton).

The couple met in D.C. in 1988, when Sandi worked as the press secretary for the Texas congressman Mickey Leland. She left to attend law school at the University of Illinois with her future husband. Afterward she set up a political consultancy in Chicago from which she helped build Jackson’s organization. “Her ascension really became a part of a plan that Jesse Jr. had to establish a political beachhead,” says a former Jackson confidant who requested anonymity. “And he very methodically went about plotting, diligently and successfully.”

Jackson invested just over $87,000 from his congressional coffers in Sandi’s campaign. That was about a third of all the money raised to defeat Darcel Beavers, the incumbent 7th Ward alderman—who herself had been installed by her father, the longtime alderman Bill Beavers. (Jackson has since contributed another $164,000 to his wife’s campaign fund.)

Even as alderman, Sandi continued to draw a paycheck from her husband’s campaign fund. (She has made at least $275,000 since she took the seat in 2007 and nearly $450,000 since 2002.) The couple received a ruling from the Federal Election Commission saying that the practice was legal. But that didn’t mean it didn’t smell fishy. Critics accused Jackson of converting campaign contributions to personal income. It didn’t seem to bother him.

“The best way to describe both of them,” says a former associate, “is that they are very out of touch with reality, living in their own fantasy world.” The D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue values their Washington home, off ritzy Dupont Circle, at $1.3 million, and Jackson Jr. has a well-documented taste for BMWs. One of the first things Sandi did upon taking office was grouse publicly about her aldermanic expense allowance of $33,280 a year. She promptly held a fundraiser and took in $50,000.

The Jacksons’ marriage seemed picture-perfect, though it was unconventional even by political-marriage standards. They often spent time apart, he in Washington, she in Chicago, with little overlap. (Sandi’s mother frequently looked after the children.) But Jackson’s affair with Huidobro, revealed by the Sun-Times in September 2010, two years after the relationship had supposedly ended, exposed deep fissures.

With their marital problems front-page news, Sandi went into damage control mode, going public to “discuss her private anguish.” (Her husband was not made available to answer questions.) While Sandi said in an interview that she “put her foot knee-deep in [Jesse’s] ass because I wanted everyone to know I was not taking it lightly,” sources say it wasn’t the first time her husband had strayed. “It’s not because he’s not happy with Sandi; they have a great relationship,” one source who used to be close to Jackson explains. “It’s to feed his insecurities. Guys who are insecure need to have that validation.”

Jackson needed validation in his political life too—and despite his mixed feelings about Obama’s rise to the White House in 2008, it opened up a new opportunity for his career. Somebody had to fill Obama’s Senate seat, and Jackson figured it should be him. He was reenergized, one source says: “I sensed Jesse reached for the Senate seat out of being awakened.”

Jackson would have been a logical pick. He had been a congressman for 13 years with nary a whiff of scandal (news of his extramarital affair had yet to break); he was a gifted orator; he was a friend of Obama’s who also hailed from the South Side; and he would retain the only African American seat in the Senate.

But as Jackson presumably knew, Governor Blagojevich wasn’t planning to appoint someone on merit or even qualifications. The governor was trying to leverage his appointment power for political and personal gain. Worse for Jackson, Blagojevich harbored a deep loathing for him, apparently because Jackson recanted his endorsement of Blagojevich in the 2002 governor’s race after Roland Burris entered the contest. (Ironically, the governor, as we all know, wound up appointing Burris as Obama’s replacement.)

Usually when it comes to seeking political appointments, good politicians follow the template set down by successful vice presidential wannabes: Don’t let on how badly you want the job, but let on just enough to make it clear that, if asked, you’d take it.

Instead, Jackson built a public case to pressure the governor into choosing him. He chatted up as many reporters as he could, spoke to editorial boards, encouraged a letter-writing campaign, and commissioned his wife to conduct two polls. One indicated that Jackson led all prospective Senate candidates with the support of 21 percent of those surveyed. The other showed that Sandi would be an overwhelming favorite to succeed her husband in the House.

To the rest of the political establishment, Jackson’s aggressiveness was unsenatorial, even unseemly. “That period of time, it was problematic,” recalls Kwame Raoul, the state senator who now holds Obama’s old seat in the General Assembly. “There were a number of people who had interest, a number of congressmen and others, but he was the most visible.”

Jackson was unapologetic: “Anyone who is not campaigning for this office in one form or another is not taking the process as seriously as it has to be taken,” he said in a TV interview.

At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Jackson’s quest for the seat became a piece of pure theatre. Rising to speak in a room filled with Illinois’s most powerful political figures, Jackson put away his prepared remarks, teared up, and called for a grand reconciliation, which saw him hugging congressional rivals Bobby Rush and Debbie Halvorson as well as Mayor Daley.

It seemed bizarrely genuine at the time. But, looking back, one could wonder if the hug-a-thon was a stunt to try to consolidate support for his Senate bid. “He really, really in his heart believed he was going to be U.S. Senator,” says Halvorson. “He had to make peace with everyone he had pissed off.”

Denver is also where Jackson first spoke to Raghuveer Nayak about wanting the appointment, according to testimony Jackson gave to the House Ethics Committee. He later downplayed those conversations, saying they mainly consisted of Nayak jokingly calling him “Senator.”

The Indian-born businessman first entered the Jackson family orbit as a supporter of Operation Push. He befriended Jackson’s brother Jonathan and they partnered on several business deals, including the development of a South Side bank building.

It’s unclear how close Nayak was with Jackson. But there is no question that Nayak and another business associate, Rajinder Bedi, once the state’s chief trade officer, offered $1.5 million—perhaps upward of $6 million—on Jackson’s behalf to Robert Blagojevich, who handled fundraising for his brother. The question is whether Jackson knew about or even directed it. (An August 2009 report by the Office of Congressional Ethics found “probable cause” to believe that Jackson had either directed Nayak to make a pay-to-play offer with Blagojevich or knew of the plan.)

Blagojevich was captured on federal wiretaps frequently telling his advisers that the idea of appointing Jackson was “repugnant” to him. But as his options seemed to dwindle, Jackson became more central to his thinking. “I can’t believe anything he says,” Blagojevich comments on one wiretap. “[But] what he’s got third parties saying to me is a heck of a lot more substantial than what we’re getting from the Obama people, OK?”

While Blagojevich worked his end, Jackson worked his, though he was feeling “increasingly disillusioned” with the governor, according to the House Ethics Committee report. Blagojevich was similarly annoyed with Jackson. Here he is talking with the deputy governor, Bob Greenlee, on October 31, 2008:

BLAGOJEVICH: I got some lady callin’ my house for Jesse Jr. here a little while ago.

GREENLEE: I’m tellin’ ya that guy’s shameless.

BLAGOJEVICH: Unbelievable, isn’t it? Then I, we were approached, pay-to-play. That, you know, he’d raise me five hundred grand, an emissary came, then the other guy would raise a million, if I made him a senator.

GREENLEE: I’m not, I’m, ah, you know I’m not surprised by him at all.

On November 10, Blagojevich was clearly reassessing. He told another adviser: “Um, I’ll tell you about this conversation I had with the Jacksons over the weekend. . . . He’s in the mix all of a sudden. OK? . . . I still don’t think I’ll, you know, do it, but he’s, I’m not rulin’ him out now.”

Finally, on December 8, the governor met with Jackson face to face. That meeting took place in a Thompson Center conference room that wasn’t bugged, so we are left without an account that could conceivably settle the matter. What is known is that Jackson brought with him a three-ring binder filled with arguments for appointing him. The last page envisioned a joint campaign in 2010, with Jackson seeking a full six-year Senate term and Blagojevich a third term—though Jackson must have known that the governor, with 13 percent approval ratings, wouldn’t likely be around to see it.

The very next morning, federal agents arrived at Blagojevich’s Ravenswood home and arrested him. When U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced the charges, he said that a scheme to sell the Senate seat was stopped before it could materialize to avoid a constitutional crisis. The scheme appears to be the appointment of “Senate Candidate 5”: Jesse Jackson Jr.

For the next three years, the usually voluble Jackson went into a shell, refusing media requests, dodging reporters, and lobbing his defense only in controlled environments.

But this year, with the Blagojevich trials behind him—Jackson wasn’t called to testify in the first trial, which ended in a hung jury, but did so in the second—he turned his attention to his reelection. Jackson hadn’t faced a serious challenge since first winning his seat in 1995. This time was different—and not just because the Blagojevich albatross around his neck made him vulnerable. He also faced a tough intraparty challenge from his longtime nemesis Debbie Halvorson, she of the Denver hug.

Halvorson had been in Congress herself for a term before being turned out by Adam Kinzinger in the Republican tidal wave of 2010. Before that, she was a four-term state senator who rose to majority leader. Halvorson figured to be formidable, given the additional fact that Jackson’s congressional district had been remapped in the spring of 2011 in a way that benefited her. The redrawn district subtracted Cook County constituents and added more of Will County and even a slice of Kankakee, making it more conservative—and more white.

It was a nasty campaign, but in the end, Halvorson wasn’t up to the challenge. In March, Jackson cruised with 71 percent of the vote. Then he withdrew, to a large extent, from the public eye. And then he disappeared.

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Photograph: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

 


Former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, who also suffers from bipolar disorder, visits Jackson at the Mayo Clinic on August 16, 2012. For more photos, launch the gallery »
 

Bipolar disorder is typically characterized by prolonged periods of depression alternating with episodes of mania—a seesawing combination that affects roughly 2 to 3 percent of Americans, according to Robin Nusslock, the director of the mood disorders laboratory at Northwestern University. Depression periods can last for weeks, usually months. But when the mania hits, he says, people get overcome by a rush of energy, more than they can typically handle. “It’s like putting a Ferrari engine in a Ford Taurus; the Ford doesn’t know how to handle so much horsepower,” he says.

Nusslock says common signs of bipolar disorders—particularly in the manic periods—include inflated self-esteem, poor judgment, irritability, aggressive behavior, spending sprees, and an increased sex drive. Or some combination of these. Sources interviewed for this article point to some of Jackson’s behavior in recent years—the affair, the dogged pursuit of the Senate seat, among other things—that fits the latter description.

As for depression, there was the “darkness” that Jackson spoke of experiencing after Blagojevich’s indictment undercut his Senate seat hopes. Jackson’s mother, Jacqueline, alluded to it in July, right after her son’s disappearance became known. “He thought he was going to be a senator,” she told a friendly crowd at an Operation PUSH luncheon. “He thought he was going to have a chance to run for mayor. And young people don’t bounce back from disappointment like me and my husband.”

Could the bipolar depression that Jackson was diagnosed with in August have been triggered by the weight-loss surgery he had eight years ago? New areas of science are finding some intriguing connections between the gut and the brain—particularly in cases of bariatric surgery patients.

Vivek Prachand, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago, says that gastric surgery can indeed result in nutritional deficiencies if protocols—vitamin supplements, for example—aren’t followed. That, in turn, can affect mood and well-being. “There’s just so much complexity in terms of the psychology of eating,” he says.

John Alverdy, the chief of the surgical obesity program at the University of Chicago—and the only doctor in the Chicago area besides Prachand who performs duodenal switch procedures—adds: “There’s a growing body of knowledge that the surgery dramatically changes the composition and function of gut bacteria so much it can actually affect brain activity and brain chemistry.”

But no direct connection between duodenal switch surgery and depression has yet been proved, say Prachand and Alverdy, neither of whom treated Jackson. Some patients who undergo the procedure are already suffering from depression, they say; the surgery could exacerbate a preexisting condition. And still another body of research shows that mood disorders and depression can actually decrease after such surgeries, at least in the short term.

The Jackson camp clearly wants the public to see a connection between the bipolar diagnosis and the earlier surgery, perhaps to bolster sympathy. The mid-August statement issued by the Mayo Clinic said in separate paragraphs that (a) its doctors were treating Jackson for bipolar disorder and (b) he had previously undergone the weight-loss surgery. Asked for more details about the statement—including who actually wrote it—Traci Klein, a Mayo spokeswoman, said: “We don’t give out information unless they [patients] want us to. The wording is sent out on their behalf. [Statements] are approved by the patient, and they are what they are.”

Regardless of how Jackson’s illness is being spun by his family and handlers, he faces a potentially long and tough road to recovery. Treatment for bipolar disorder generally consists of a combination of medication—antidepressants and mood stabilizers, lithium being one of the most commonly prescribed—along with psychotherapy and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. It can take weeks for the drugs to begin to work, and months to return to feeling fully well. Bipolar sufferers, adds Nusslock, may also take additional medications to manage the possible side effects (which include sleep loss and tremors) of the antidepressants and mood stabilizers. “It’s not just something that goes away,” he says. “The risk of relapse is very high. It’s a lifelong illness that involves lifelong treatment.” Still, it’s quite possible for bipolar patients to live a fully functioning life.

* * *

On August 16, Jackson was seen for the first time in months in a photograph taken at the Mayo Clinic. He was sitting with a visitor, Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman who himself battled bipolar disorder—and remained in office. (After resigning last year, Kennedy founded One Mind for Research, an initiative to find new treatments for brain disorders.) Jackson looked drawn and a bit dazed and was suffering from what Kennedy described as a “deep, deep depression.”

A few days later, Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich paid a visit and said that his friend was in “a fragile state.”

Both comments stood in stark contrast to the string of assurances in August from Team Jackson that their man was getting ready to hit the campaign trail. But truth be told, political experts say, it doesn’t much matter whether Jackson hits the campaign trail or not. Even with redistricting, the 2nd District remains overwhelmingly Democratic. And his opponents in November are little known: Brian Woodworth (Republican) and Anthony Williams (Green Party). Jackson could likely win this race from a hospital bed—or from a jail cell. After all, this is Illinois. “He can be congressman for however long he wants,” says one top Illinois Democrat. “But that’s all he’s ever going to be.”

What if Jackson were to pull out of the race? The Cook County Democratic Party chairman, Joe Berrios—the kind of old-school machine pol Jackson has spent much of his career castigating—would select his replacement (with his counterparts in Will and Kankakee counties.)

Worry over that scenario may be partly why, in mid-August, after weeks of silence, Sandi and some others in the Jackson camp began talking. In a carefully calibrated series of interviews, they assured the public that Jackson was on the mend and would be back soon. Even though the message remained unclear from day to day—“back soon,” to “back whenever the doctors say it’s OK”—the steady drumbeat seemed designed to send a larger message: Don’t get any ideas. This is Jesse Jackson Jr.’s seat. If not his, then, ideally, Sandi’s.

But if Jackson’s short-term political future seems secure, it’s less clear that in the long term he’ll have much room to advance. His illness is probably the least of his problems. The shadows of Blagogate and his affair still hangs over him. The total package is no longer as shiny as it once was. Politicians have come back from worse—Ted Kennedy is Exhibit A. But it’s a steep hill to climb. “When will he be back? Well, we don’t know,” the elder Jackson told the online journal Politico in August. “We wish he never would have gone.”

 

Photograph: Courtesy Of Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy

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