The Jesse Jackson Guilty Plea Ends Dreams of a Dynasty

Jill Lawrence

Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jesse Jackson Jr., household names in Chicago and among political observers of a certain age, were building an African-American political dynasty with the White House in its sights. So much for that.

And so much for the idea that former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.’s worst problem was getting mixed up in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s scheme to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Now it seems that even bipolar disorder might not be his worst problem –there’s medication and therapy available, and no one blames him for having it.

Jackson, 47, could be headed for several years in jail on charges of illegally spending campaign funds, according to reports of a plea agreement he was expected to sign Friday. The reports said he will plead guilty to misusing $750,000 in campaign money for furs, watches, home renovations and other personal luxuries. His wife, former Chicago alderman Sandi Jackson, who received campaign checks for consulting, was reportedly planning to plead guilty to a tax offense.

The fall was steep enough for the younger Jacksons, who resigned their jobs and are all but shut out of a future in politics.  For Jesse Jackson Sr., who reportedly was stunned by the news, it’s a personal tragedy and also the end of larger ambitions for his legacy.

Jackson Sr. ran for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, and had good reasons for hoping that his son might take up the mantle. While his White House bids failed, he endured as a party powerbroker, an adviser and counselor to presidents, a longtime CNN host, a fighter for civil rights and against poverty, and an international activist who helped free American hostages in Syria, Cuba, Iraq and Yugoslavia.

There have been memorable low points in Jackson Sr.’s public life, but they weren’t career-enders. There was his 1984 reference to Jews and New York City as Hymies and Hymietown (for which he apologized); a 1999 affair with a staffer that produced a daughter (again, he apologized, and temporarily left the public stage “to reconnect with my family”); the time he whispered of Obama that “I want to cut his nuts off” for “talking down to black people” in a 2008 Father’s Day speech (he apologized for that, too, and reaffirmed that he supported Obama for president).

Jackson Sr. had good reasons for hoping his son might succeed where he had failed. Jackson Jr. was viewed as bursting with promise. In 1997, two years after he won a special House election, Newsweek named him one of “100 people for the new century … whose creativity or talent or brains or leadership will make a difference in the years ahead.” But by 2008 he was in counseling with his wife over an extramarital affair.

Who knows what went wrong. Maybe it was that he grew up steeped in Chicago politics, served in a Congress awash in fundraising, money and temptation, and as a House member dealt with two Illinois governors who went to jail. Maybe it was the bipolar disorder.

Maybe he lacked the grounding his father had, in moral causes like the civil rights movement, and in his training and career as a pastor. A few months after the Hymietown incident, Jackson Sr. told the Democratic convention: “I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient. God is not finished with me yet.”

The speech was powerfully affecting and may have salvaged Jackson’s future as a national figure. That's an avenue now almost certainly foreclosed to his son.