Jesse Jackson Jr., left, and Rod Blagojevich

In tapes played for the jury last week at the Blago trial, the ex-gov was heard telling aides that if both Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. were drowning, and he could only save one, he’d probably pick Jackson.

Back in the ’90s, Jackson was said to be Blago’s closest friend in the Illinois congressional delegation. Both were best known for keeping their eyes on the next higher office. Jesse was leaking to the press his hopes to become the nation’s first black President in 2004; Blago was envisioning the governor’s office as a steppingstone to the Oval Office.  

In 1999, it was Jesse Jr. who helped to broker the odd coupling of his father with Blago to travel together to Belgrade for a meeting with Slobodan Milosevic, then the Serbian president of Yugoslavia. Milosevic was holding three American POWs, and Jackson Sr. had become known for negotiating with dictators the release of hostages and prisoners. To the reverend’s visible dismay, Milosevic seemed to fancy his fellow Serb, Blago, who restrained himself so that Jackson could hog the cameras once the prisoners were released. (No worry, Blago managed to get his camera time. He was accompanied by his then-chief of staff John Wyma—one of the feds’ witnesses Tuesday—who recalled running before dawn with Blago through the streets of Belgrade, bombs from NATO air strikes raining down, accompanied by an HBO cameraman.)

Blago’s courteous treatment of the Jacksons—Blago came out in support of a third airport at Peotone, one of Jesse Jr.’s big issues—was aimed at winning their endorsement in the crowded March 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. 

In 2001, the Chicago newspapers reported the endorsement as a given. But then Roland Burris—a former attorney general and comptroller and the first African-American to hold both jobs—entered the primary. By mid-2001, according to a report in the Springfield State Journal-Register, Jackson Jr. had not yet made up his mind. Jackson Sr. was keeping a low profile in the wake of news that he had fathered a daughter out of wedlock. 

In February 2002, the Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet reported that Jesse Jr. was going to support Burris. Sweet quoted Blago as saying he was disappointed. One can only imagine what he really said; the feds were years away from bugging his telephones. He eked out a narrow victory that March, but he never forgot the betrayal.

Blago was heard on tape telling an adviser that Jackson is “a bad guy,” adding, “he’s really not the guy I hoped or thought he was.” 

Once Blago recognized that Obama was not going to trade his Senate seat for a cabinet position or an ambassadorship for Blago, the gov turned to Jesse Jr.—for one reason only: a Jackson aide allegedly promised that if Blago appointed the congressman, Jesse Jr.’s supporters could raise a million dollars for Blago.

Since Blago’s arrest in December 2008, Jesse Jr. has been the quietest congressman in Illinois. Until last week, that is. On Wednesday, a prosecution witness placed Jesse Jr. with a supporter, Raghuveer Nayak, at the upscale 312 Restaurant on LaSalle Street on October 28, 2008. Nayak allegedly was trying to make the aforementioned deal with Blago’s employee, Rajinder Bedi. 

Jackson Jr., who has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing all along, could be in serious trouble. At best, his reputation and his prospects for higher office are deeply wounded. And once the Blago trial concludes, he faces the resumption of a congressional ethics probe.

Jackson Sr. had tried to be president himself but knew he’d never make it. Now he has to realize that his son won’t, either—that Jr. won’t even be mayor of Chicago, another position he was said to covet.

On November 4th, 2008, when Jackson Sr. was shown with tears running down his cheeks at Obama’s victory celebration in Grant Park, I wondered if he was also crying tears of frustration, and not just joy—if maybe he wished the adoring crowds had been for him or his son.

Jesse Jr.’s spokesman, Ken Edmonds, had promised repeatedly last month to arrange an interview with the congressman. I was told Tuesday that he no longer works for Jackson, and an attempt to reach Edmonds’ successor was not successful.


Photography: Chicago Tribune