Why Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Win Won’t Save His Career

Jackson easily held on to his seat in this week's midterm elections. But the scandal-ridden congressman "could'a been a contender" on a much larger scale. Some say he has only himself to blame.


In the immortal words of the great New York Yankee pundit Yogi Berra, “It was like déjà vu all over again.” Under a blinding media glare, yet another prominent American politician squirmed to sweep aside a damaging extramarital affair. This time it was Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., deflecting questions about a two-year-old indiscretion with a blond Washington, D.C., restaurant hostess. “The reference to a social acquaintance is a private and personal matter between me and my wife that was handled some time ago,” Jackson said at the time.

Newspaper headlines quickly proclaimed: “Like Father, Like Son,” referring to his famous father’s rumored flings with singer Roberta Flack and other women whose names never surfaced. The elder Jackson’s personal reputation was sullied, but his political career never seemed to suffer, even after fathering a child from one illicit affair.

This week, the younger Jackson easily won reelection to an eighth term as Illinois’ 2nd District congressman, handily defeating his opponent, GOP challenger Isaac Hayes. However, unlike his father, the younger Jackson still faces a tarnished and uncertain political future as he confronts his own scandalous extramarital tryst and a federal investigation into his alleged involvement with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now on trial for allegedly trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Also unlike his father, who ran for president twice but was never elected to any office, Rep. Jackson did not get help from his wife when the story of the affair finally broke late last month. (The congressman declined to speak with The Root “on advice of counsel.”)

During the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, a dogged reporter from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution threatened to bring the campaign to a halt with allegations of an affair with a woman who worked for the DNC. Then, in an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, Jackson’s wife, Jacqueline, helped put an end to the overt media questioning. Looking straight into the legendary reporter’s eyes, she told him that he was not welcome in the Jackson bedroom. “There are certain vulgar questions that should not be asked,” she said.

Twenty-two years later, Rep. Jackson’s wife, Sandi, a Chicago alderman, took a completely different tack. In a front-page interview with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed, Mrs. Jackson bared her anguish and anger over her husband’s betrayal. “I’d known about it nearly two years ago because Jesse told me late one night in Washington,” she told Sneed.

Shortly after the news broke of the affair, she said, she spoke with staff members gathered at a 47th birthday party and fundraiser held for her at a South Side restaurant. “I told them: ‘I put my foot knee-deep in his ass, and he has been having a very difficult time sleeping peacefully since then.'”

Her husband was at the party when she spoke. And while everyone enjoyed a laugh at his expense, Alderman Jackson went on to explain how deadly serious the entire experience has been and how the public disclosure reopened a deeply painful personal wound.

“When the Clintons ran into marital trouble, I thought Hillary should leave Bill,” Jackson told Sneed. “I couldn’t understand what Tiger Woods did and how his wife had to suffer publicly. But when the ‘beast’ lands at your door, it can be a very, very different experience. No one really knows what they are going to do until they are in that situation. When it happens to you, it’s amazing how what you once thought was black and white becomes variations of a color called gray.”

Jackson has apologized publicly to his wife and family; she says they have been to counseling and she has forgiven him. But if the Jacksons’ marriage is no longer clouded by shades of “gray,” the congressman’s once-bright political future remains murky.