There is a lot of head shaking over Jesse Jackson Jr.'s murky involvement in the swirl of muck engulfing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. While Jackson is clearly not a target of the federal investigation that has ensnared Blagojevich, he may the one taking the biggest political hit so far.
Jackson's chances for the Senate seat, and therefore any higher political office, may have been irreparably damaged by the Blago scandal. The governor, after all, has been under investigations for years; his public approval ratings were in the low teens, which means not even his distant cousins were sticking by him. He had no good name left to preserve and no political future to worry about. If he manages to stay out of jail, it will be a legal and personal triumph.
But Jesse Jackson Jr., who had managed to ably establish himself as a legitimate and respected political force in Chicago and in national politics, separate from his famous father, suddenly finds himself explaining away problems not of his own making. Except for the fact that he so badly wanted to be a U.S. senator.
Who knows what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has on tape or whether what he has on tape amounts to enough to convict Hot Rod Blagojevich? What we know for sure is that Blago's done; that Barack Obama and his posse seem confidently clear of the mess so far. The only person explaining, really, is Jesse Jr.
"I did not initiate or authorize anyone at any time to promise anything to Governor Blagojevich on my behalf. I never sent a message or an emissary to the governor to make an offer, to plead my case or to propose a deal about a U.S. Senate seat, period," Jackson said this week after a hastily called press conference on Capitol Hill. "I thought, mistakenly, that the process was fair, aboveboard and on the merits. I thought, mistakenly, that the governor was evaluating me and other Senate hopefuls based upon our credentials and qualifications."
The emotion was real and raw. But the overall tone, despite the defiance, was one of defeat.
It is a standard rule of political combat that if you're the one explaining, you're the one losing, and the thing that may hurt Jackson most was the sense that he may have wanted it too much.
After the news that Blagojevich had been heard on tape suggesting that Jackson was willing to raise money in exchange for Obama's old seat, the instant reaction was that whatever Jackson's chances were—and they were judged to be significant—of replacing Obama in the Senate, had now evaporated. Jackson's political profile was one of a serious legislator who had outgrown his father's shadow. Obama's departure leaves the Senate, once again, an institution of all white members. In addition to his qualifications, a Jackson appointment has a lot to offer in terms of maintaining the most minimal degree of diversity in the Senate.
And Jackson had been open in his eagerness for the job, and that eagerness may color how people view the suggestion that he was willing to play ball with Blagojevich, despite the dearth of evidence to support it. "I want to make this fact plain, I reject and denounce pay-to-play politics and have no involvement whatsoever in any wrongdoing," Jackson assured reporters on Wednesday.
And even as Jackson was distancing himself from Blagojevich and the tainted process this week, his attorney, James Montgomery Sr., was making clear that the congressman still had his eyes on the job.
"He's campaigned for it," he said. "He wants it. He's entitled to it. He's qualified for it. Yes, he would accept it."
Now however, it looks like the next senator will be chosen by special election, which means the voting universe is a lot bigger and exponentially more complicated.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.