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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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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.

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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.


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

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