A crisis even Rev. Jesse Jackson can’t solve: his son’s illness

By Monica Davey, The New York Times, November 23, 2012

Rev Jesse Jackson (R) and Jesse Jackson Jr.

Rev Jesse Jackson (R) and Jesse Jackson Jr.

If there’s a crisis unfolding somewhere, it’s a good bet that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is on his way.

Over the years, Mr. Jackson, 71, who has a fondness for staring into the lens of a television camera, has jetted to tense locales around the world to negotiate the release of hostages. When President Clinton’s White House was engulfed in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Jackson showed up to offer spiritual guidance, including some advice he described to a reporter at the time: “Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. And don’t panic.”

Recently, Mr. Jackson marched in the rain, and was arrested, with workers losing their jobs in Freeport, Ill. He popped up in Baltimore to oppose plans for a youth detention facility. And he appeared in Cincinnati just before Election Day, denouncing long lines as proof of repress-the-vote tactics.

For all his mastery at inserting himself into and shaping a story line, though, he appears less sure how to cope with a crisis much closer to home: Mr. Jackson’s oldest and namesake son, Jesse L. Jackson Jr., has vanished from public view, grappling for months with bipolar disorder. He is also the subject of a federal criminal investigation, and he announced on Wednesday that he would be resigning his seat in Congress less than three weeks after he won re-election.

READJesse L. Jackson Jr.’s letter of resignation

On the topic of his son, the elder Mr. Jackson seems for once to be without a clever phrase to crystallize a situation, and at one point this summer slipped away from reporters through the back kitchen of a hotel. When he has spoken of his son, his words lack their usual staccato sharpness.

“He will get well in time, but it’s not the kind of illness where you can put a timetable on it,” a subdued Mr. Jackson told reporters outside his home here following the resignation. “If you’re bleeding, you get a Band-Aid. If you break a leg, you get a splint. With this kind of internal, unresolved challenge, you have to take the time, and the environment.”

Frank Watkins, an aide to the younger Mr. Jackson since he was first elected to Congress almost two decades ago and a colleague of his father long before that, said, “I see confusion.” He described the father as “not knowing what to do relative to mental health, especially as it pertains to his own son — and kind of at a loss.”

Former Representative Jackson, 47, whose whereabouts was not disclosed last week, could not be reached for comment. Requests for an interview with the elder Mr. Jackson went unanswered. And many people interviewed for this article declined to be quoted by name, citing concern about their relationship with the family.

But nearly everyone shared the same impression, that the sure-footed leader of his political family was unable to sway this story line, try as he might.

Alderman Roderick T. Sawyer, son of the late Mayor Eugene Sawyer of Chicago, who said he has known the Jacksons for decades, described the situation as gut-wrenching for the father.

“For such a powerful man, for such an influential man, to not be able to control the outcome of what’s going on, I’m sure, is frustrating,” Alderman Sawyer said.

By all accounts, the relationship between father and his oldest son has been complex, layered with love, pressure, resentment and even competition.

The younger Mr. Jackson, still known as Junior to many in Chicago and as Fella to adults who knew him as a child, grew up in a house on the South Side with a famous father who took him to protests and sermons around the world.

Associates said that Jesse Jr., one of five siblings, grew up respecting his father, who was often gone, but was perhaps closer to his mother, Jacqueline. He had the benefits of his father’s name, but also the inevitable pressures to carry on the family’s legacy.

“I grew up in a house with great expectations,” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1995, months before he first ran for Congress. “Everything I do has a mark of excellence on it.”

“If I want to be a lawyer, that’s not enough,” added Mr. Jackson, who has a law degree and a master’s in theology. “I need to be a Supreme Court justice one day. If I wanted to be an elected official, that’s not enough. ‘One day, son, you may be president.’ ”

When a Congressional seat from the South Side came open in a special election later that year, the elder Mr. Jackson had his doubts, associates recalled, particularly since far more experienced Democrats were running and his son was just 30, and still baby-faced.

The father did campaign for him, asserting that his son was his own man. But as the father raised money and handed out buttons that read “A new generation,” his message was clear: this was a family business.

“The magnitude of the victory was a tribute to the old man,” said Don Rose, a veteran political consultant in Chicago. “But after that, he was on his own.”

At times, the son seemed to strain to define himself as different from his father. He prided himself on his ability to grasp policy details, and his nearly perfect attendance record (until this year) in Congress. He regularly joked that he had held but a handful of news conferences in his career, while his father might have held just as many in a day.

His interests could be more local and practical than his father’s; from his home, he built a computerized political operation (associates say his father was never savvy with technology) to help elect aldermen and state legislators.

“He was very proud of being his own man, and chafing at the idea that he’s a chip off the old block,” said Laura Washington, a political analyst who has followed the Jacksons for years.

In the eyes of some, too, there seemed to be flashes of competition. The elder Mr. Jackson ran for president in 1984 and 1988 (when his son introduced him at the Democratic National Convention), but the son was often mentioned by the political establishment as a leader who might ultimately outdo his father, setting up an unspoken contest: which Jackson would go further?

There were open discussions of a presidential run among Representative Jackson’s aides, who recognized his crossover appeal beyond black voters with his own Spanish translations of his speeches. People Magazine named him “Sexiest Politician” in 1997. There were meetings to weigh a run for mayor of Chicago in 2007 and, a year later, to become a United States senator.

A family rift spilled out in public in 2008, when the father was heard, caught on a live microphone before a television interview, using crass language to deride Barack Obama, a presidential candidate at the time, for “talking down to black people.” His son, who was a chairman of Mr. Obama’s campaign, rebuked his father in a public statement.

“Reverend Jackson is my dad, and I’ll always love him,” he said. “I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Then Jesse Jackson Jr.’s fortunes shifted overnight. When Mr. Obama won the White House in 2008, Representative Jackson pressed hard to replace him in the Senate. That December, he met with Rod R. Blagojevich, governor of Illinois at the time, whose job it was to choose a replacement for Mr. Obama. The next morning, Mr. Blagojevich was arrested on corruption charges for trying to sell the Senate seat.

Mr. Jackson was never charged with a crime in the case, but allegations about back-room dealing have plagued him ever since. Mr. Jackson has denied wrongdoing. But a House Ethics Committee opened an investigation, and the federal investigation into Mr. Blagojevich also turned up reports of an extramarital relationship of Mr. Jackson with a Washington restaurant hostess. That echoed revelations from 2001, when the elder Mr. Jackson acknowledged fathering a child outside of his marriage.

This summer, the younger Mr. Jackson went missing from Congress. His office explained that he was suffering from exhaustion, but weeks later disclosed that he was being treated for bipolar II depression, a condition that his associates say may have been exacerbated by weight-loss surgery in 2004, which changed the way his body absorbs medication.

Adding to his troubles, federal authorities had started a criminal investigation into Representative Jackson’s campaign fund and, according to published reports, whether that money was used to decorate the family’s home. Last week, Mr. Jackson indicated that he was cooperating with investigators, and his lawyers said they hoped “to negotiate a fair resolution” of the situation.

 “During this journey, I have made my share of mistakes,” Mr. Jackson wrote in his letter resigning from Congress.

Through the months out of public view, he has talked to his father sometimes several times a day, people close to both men said. Some connected to the family said Representative Jackson had struggled with mood swings for years, but his illness had never been formally diagnosed.

His mother has spoken emotionally of her son’s circumstances, saying that he has struggled with enormous letdowns.

“He thought he was going to be the senator,” Ms. Jackson told a crowd at the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition last summer. “He thought he was going to have a chance to run for mayor. And young people don’t bounce back with disappointment like me and my husband.”

Associates said they have no doubt that the father is struggling, too.

“I’m sure he’s probably on his knees asking God, ‘Where do I go from here?’ ” said Carrie Austin, an alderman and an Illinois Democratic Party committeewoman.

A close family associate said the elder Mr. Jackson had been trying, without much success, to control the media’s coverage of his son.

“That’s why this is so incredibly hard,” the associate said. “It’s always easier to deal with other peoples’ problems than your own, and he’s probably too hands-on with it. He’s very, very concerned. And there’s nothing worse than when you can’t fix something for your kid.”