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

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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.

Revelations about the affair have only aggravated an already precarious political situation for Jackson, who has been named as one of five potential buyers in Blagojevich's alleged scheme to sell Obama's Senate seat. The impeached governor's first trial ended in August with a hung jury on 23 of 24 counts against him. The retrial is set to begin in January.


Many — including close personal friends and colleagues who once admired the young Jackson, helped mold his career and held high hopes for his political future — now say that while the Illinois Democrat kept his seat in Congress, his reputation and electability outside his undeniably safe 2nd Congressional District have taken a big hit. The question is how big that hit will be, and how much it will affect his broader political aspirations.

The Root spoke via telephone with the congressman's father to see what, if any, advice he might have to offer his oldest son. The Rev. Jesse Jackson said that he had discussed Jesse Jr.'s transgressions and his political future with him, but he did not want to share the content of those conversations publicly.


When the story of Rev. Jackson's own sex scandal — that he had fathered a child while having an affair with one of his staff members — broke in the National Inquirer in 2001, the two-time Democratic presidential candidate apologized publicly but also argued that his private indiscretions should have nothing to do with his public role.

Some, including several prominent members of the African-American press, predicted that it would be the end of his public career. But a self-imposed exile from public life lasted just a few days before Jackson was back in the spotlight doing what he does best: championing the civil rights issues he worked a lifetime to preserve, including affirmative action, economic justice and political power.


As columnist George E. Curry wrote at the time: "Jesse Jackson plays an important role in helping us keep our eyes on the prize. It is a role he should continue to play. And what happened in his personal life is a matter the good reverend will have to take up with God." While Jackson's personal reputation was severely tarnished and his "moral authority," something he often touted, irreparably damaged, many apparently agreed with Curry. And Jackson has continued his work. However, there is one important difference between the father and the son. Jackson Sr., who was elected shadow senator of Washington, D.C., in 1991, hasn't really had to be accountable to voters. Nor did he have to face voters again after his 2001 scandal.

But Rep. Jackson, who by most accounts has been an effective legislator for his largely African-American constituency, bringing more than $800 million in federal resources to the district, could face a serious challenge in the next Democratic primary. He has been a leading proponent of building a new, $400 million airport in the South Chicago suburbs that he says would create 15,000 jobs for the region. The airport and other future projects could be in jeopardy if Jackson's cheating and alleged involvement with Blagojevich derail his political career.


"It's the worst case of political suicide I've ever seen," says one longtime Chicago political observer. "If he [eventually] loses, he beat himself."

Indeed, before the Blagojevich and cheating scandals, Jackson Jr. would have been one of the top candidates for mayor of Chicago in a race without Richard M. Daley, who announced that he would not seek re-election next year. Jackson might also have been considered a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate seat he is now suspected of trying to buy.


Instead, conventional wisdom now suggests that Jackson has all but destroyed a once-promising political career because of his inability to control his appetites. He couldn't control his weight, so he had surgery. He couldn't control his libido, so he had affairs. And he couldn't control his lust for power, so he got into bed with Blagojevich. And in each instance, hubris and dishonesty made a bad situation worse.

The once-overweight Jackson has said that he lost 50 pounds with exercise, diet and what he described as "shots in the butt." It was, in fact, the result of surgery. The affair that he described as a "private matter" that was resolved more than two years ago now appears to be a bit more involved.


The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that the congressman asked Raghuveer Nayak, a Chicago fundraiser implicated in the Blagojevich investigation, to purchase plane tickets for Giovana Huidobro, the Washington woman whom Jackson described to FBI agents investigating Blagojevich as merely "a social acquaintance." If it turns out that Jackson was involved in the Blagojevich scandal, he would have lied again — and compounded it with his recent defiant challenge on a local radio show for federal investigators to "Bring it on!"  

"It's a shame. The guy did have great promise," says veteran Chicago political consultant Don Rose. "I liked him a lot and was going to help him run for mayor."


That was almost four years ago, Rose says. Jackson Sr. was pushing his son to "take a chance," but the younger Jackson was being very cautious. "Events are now overtaking his mayoral aspirations, and I think he's backed off those aspirations," says Rose. "Now he is also unlikely to be a candidate for U.S. senator eight or six years hence."

Still, who knows what could happen four years from now in the unpredictable world of American politics. "You can find cases of both black and white politicians in which personal behavior like an affair makes no difference at the polls, and others where it ruins the person," says Rose. "There is a greater and greater tolerance [for bad behavior] through the years. It totally ended Gary Hart's political career. But Bill Clinton's career was not destroyed by his peccadilloes. In some ways, you saw feminists coming to his defense."


Jackson may not be so lucky. "In Jesse's case, were this an ordinary peccadillo, I don't think it would hurt his congressional career," Rose says. "But he has other ethical questions that have to be answered that probably will be career limiting. The worst aspect of Jesse's event seems to be that it was a blond, white woman, which tends to piss off black women."

Frank Watkins, a longtime, close personal friend of the Jackson family who for many years was a key political strategist for Rev. Jackson and Rep. Jackson's congressional chief of staff, also believes that the impact of Jesse Jr.'s affair on his political future is uncertain. "It depends on whether you slipped up one night or whether this is a habit you cannot control," says Watkins. "He's safe in his district, but he'll probably get the lowest vote total he's ever had. The other part of this is that even if you vote for him, it doesn't mean he doesn't take a hit. A lot of folks are going to say, ‘I am disappointed, but I am going to vote for him anyway.' "


In fact, Jackson has carried close to 90 percent of the vote in past elections. This time around he won 81 percent of the vote. Still, Rose says, two years from now, Jackson could be vulnerable to a Democratic primary challenge if the effects of his cheating and ethics scandals linger. "He's got a lot more stuff coming up in the next six months, between the Blagojevich investigation and ethics committee," says Rose. "Those questions might come to the fore and have a stronger effect. "

The answer may lie in whether voters embrace Jackson's own words written in his 2001 book, A More Perfect Union, co-authored with Frank Watkins. Near the end of the book in a chapter on personal ethics and public morality, Jackson writes:

"The religion and politics question also raises the issue of whether there can or should be a distinction made between our personal ethics and our public morality. There is no doubt that our personal ethics and public morality should be as close together as is humanly possible. As a Congressman, I am a public servant not a perfect servant. Neither religionists nor politicians should be self righteous or hypocritical. Having said that, however, we should not at all be confused about distinguishing between the two. In a secular democratic country, I am very clear that it is far better for us to be well governed by sinners than to be misgoverned by saints."


But if future voters decide that Jackson's sins are too great to forgive, he will ultimately have no one to blame but himself.

Sylvester Monroe is a Chicago writer who grew up in the city's now-razed Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the U.S. He is co-author, with Peter Goldman, of the best-selling book Brothers: Black and Poor: A True Story of Courage and Survival, about 11 of his boyhood friends in the projects.


November 6, 2010: Contrary to a statement made in an earlier version of this article, Yogi Berra is among the living. The Root apologizes for the error.