Inside the Head of Jesse Jackson Jr.

Two profiles of the embattled representative, one from the beginning of his political career and one from what could be the end, bookend his ambitions and evolution, and show how what’s kept Junior as a local politician could also save his job.

Jesse Jackson Jr

 

It was another rough weekend for the embattled congressman, who has still not returned to work: the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the previously reported federal probe into his finances is related to the possibility that he used campaign funs to redecorate his house, and Gawker got two tips that Jackson was seen in bars with women not his wife:

“They were laughing and very focused on each other,” one source said of Jackson’s demeanor on Wednesday night. “Not sure when they left but I saw them there around 10:30 p.m. They didn’t appear intoxicated or loud, but were definitely enjoying themselves.”

So who knows, but they were definitely enjoying themselves, as opposed to merely masking the darkness that is the heart of this mortal coil.

Though it may mark the ceiling of Jackson’s political career, it’s unlikely to be the end, unless Jackson chooses to retire; he’s survived reports of extramarital affairs, which are no longer the mark of Cain they once were, and he still has a supportive constituency. But no matter what these stories represent as far as the arc of his career, Chicago has two excellent pieces that bookend his early and late career, and give an introduction to the psychology of being Jesse Jackson, Jr.

The first is “The Rise of Jesse Jackson Jr. and the First Family of Black America,” a 1996 piece by Dale Eastman, written when Jackson was 31 (a year younger than myself) and just beginning his political career. It’s about growing up as the child of Jesse Jackson, the most prominent black power broker in the country, and growing up among the D.C. power elite:

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.

[snip]

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.

[snip]

“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?”

The other is “Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Dark Days” by Steve Rhodes, from the October issue. It’s a great portrait of what happened after Eastman profiled Jackson—how he built popular support in Chicago and how he built a political machine here, between the two creating a firm foundation for his seat in the House that could well keep his position safe despite the chaos of recent months:

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.

[snip]

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.

Rhodes, examining Jackson’s bright but very broad prospects—Senate? Mayor? President?—writes that “the man of ambition who wanted to change the world remained stuck worrying about the Dixie Square Mall,” and considers the likelihood that being stuck behind Mayor Daley and then Barack Obama frustrated a still young but aging politician who had his eyes on the highest offices in the land from childhood. But worrying about the Dixie Square Mall and the South Side, building a base and a machine in his district, might have consumed time and resources that might have led his career even farther, but may be in the end what keeps it going through this year.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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