The unraveling of a wonderful name

Jesse Jackson Jr. at his Capitol Hill swearing-in ceremony with his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Jesse Jackson Jr. at his Capitol Hill swearing-in ceremony with his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s guilty plea for using $750,000 in campaign money for lavish living expenses was a stark conclusion to a political career once seen as limitless. When Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995, at the age of 30, he thanked his parents for giving him “a wonderful name.” That name is now tarnished.

For many years, Jesse Jr. appeared to be living up to the legacy established by his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and 1984 and 1988 presidential candidate. Jesse Jr. fought for increases in food stamps and helped bring racial disparities in health care into national focus. He deftly juggled the interests of an urban-suburban Chicagoland district that was 65 percent black and 35 percent white. Esquire magazine endorsed him in 2006 as “an impressive member of Congress, keenly attuned to the needs of middle-class Americans, whatever the color of their skin.”

He flashed an independent streak in 2008 when his father crudely criticized presidential candidate Barack Obama as talking down to black people. The son said he’d always love the father but added, “I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric.”


Ultimately, Jesse Jackson Jr. didn’t respect the legacy of his father enough. His reputation began to unravel when he was put in the position of denying that he knew of offers from friends to purchase Obama’s US Senate seat from now-imprisoned former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Last year, he took a mysterious medical leave for what was later reported to be bipolar disorder. Then his fraudulent spending forced him to resign after winning re-election last November.

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At the height of his political career, Jackson often invoked his March 11, 1965, birth date as a highlight of his speeches, noting it was four days after the “Bloody Sunday” beatings of civil rights marchers who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and the very day that Boston Unitarian minister James Reeb died after being beaten in Selma by a white mob. He once joked that his father “almost named me Selma.”

Instead he got his father’s name — and the burden of living up to it. It proved to be more than he could handle, especially with the widespread belief that Jesse Sr. once envisioned Jesse Jr., not Barack Obama, as the Illinois politician destined to be the first black president. The collapse of Jackson’s career not only devastated his family, but depressed the constituency he pledged to serve. In the recent primary to replace him, only 14 percent of registered voters turned out on a snowy day. For a child born during Selma, it was a sad lesson in how personal corruption generates political cynicism.