Steve Rhodes on Reporting the Jesse Jackson Jr. Story

CHICAGOMAG.COM EXCLUSIVE: Our reporter, who wrote a profile of Jesse Jr. in 2005, discusses the challenges of writing about the evasive politician

What’s wrong with Jesse Jackson Jr.? Perhaps the most frustrating part of reporting “Dark Days” is that I can say with 100 percent certainty that we still don’t know.

Sure, we have statements from the Mayo Clinic—really statements from the family issued through the Mayo—and we know that doctors have been treating Jackson for bipolar disorder, though no actual doctor or even just the name of a doctor has been produced. And we know that eight years ago, the congressman had weight-loss surgery that his family for some reason—a lesser stigma?—wants everyone to believe is the cause of the bipolar disorder.

But even that conflation, duly reported by a number of media organizations, is shrouded in spinnery.

When pressed about the statement that contains two separate clauses about the surgery and the bipolar that are never connected, a Mayo Clinic spokeswoman would only say that the family wrote and approved it, as we report in the story. Sandi Jackson refused to be interviewed for our story, rejecting numerous entreaties through spokesman Kevin Lampe—though she has spoken to the Chicago Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed. When asked about Sandi’s refusal to answer questions from a reporter, Lampe would only say she’s focusing on the health of her husband—a claim that’s hard to believe, as she has made numerous other public appearances. When pressed further, he acknowledged that only Sandi has made the diagnosis blaming the surgery for his bipolar disease. “That’s what she believes,” he told me.

It turns out, however, that no doctor that we know of has made a link between Jackson’s weight-loss surgery and his bipolar disorder, despite Sandi’s desire to make just such a link and many reporters following her lead.

For those of us who want to treat Jackson’s condition seriously, who don’t doubt the severe struggle that can be bipolar disease, the pattern of evasions (again, documented in our story) regarding the health of a United States congressman is maddening. It’s even more frustrating for those of us who rarely like or trust politicians—rightly so—but who held Jackson in an actual bit of esteem.

Junior was riding high when I profiled him for this magazine in 2005. While his career in Congress may not have gotten as far as some would have thought, given his rocket ship start in 1995, he was being talked up as a potential mayor and he had become the city’s chief anti-corruption, pro-reform spokesman. His cherished airport project in the south suburb of Peotone also had momentum; the years of crushing disappointment of a legacy forestalled had yet to accrue. I liked him.

Little did I know. Perhaps most frustrating was that amid the allegations the usually accessible congressman clammed up. His reticence in ensuing years to avoid answering tough questions from reporters may made good legal sense, but it’s also helped severely tarnish his once-promising political career. Once credibility is lost, it can difficult if not impossible to recover.

I believe that even public officials deserve, as Hillary Clinton once said, a zone of privacy. I’m not much interested in their personal lives, like affairs, either—unless they are, say, using a campaign contributor who later accuses you of trying to buy a U.S. Senate seat to facilitate such an affair. I believe in giving someone like Jackson space, and that he deserves an empathy that is too often absent when it comes to mental illness. But all of that could have been accomplished without bobbing and weaving around the media and keeping the public (and constituents) in the dark. Even if Jackson’s life was in the balance—and we don’t know if it ever was—his condition must be in some way a matter of public record.

The Junior I thought I reported on back in 2005 doesn’t appear to be the one I see now, but maybe I didn’t see enough of him then. Or maybe that’s just not who he is anymore.

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