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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?

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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.


Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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