The Undoing of Jesse Jackson, Jr.

The Undoing of Jesse Jackson, Jr.

[OPINION] Lisa Bonner examines the surprising fall of the man once expected to have a long storied career in Chicago--and national--politics

by Lisa Bonner, October 31, 2013

The Undoing of Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. leaving the federal court house after being sentenced to prison


Chicago politics long been synonymous with corruption. With an average of 51 public corruption convictions each year since 1976, it is no wonder that Chicago has been hailed as the most corrupt federal jurisdiction in the U.S.  The often ruthless climb to the top of Chicago’s political arena is frequently punctuated by bribery, extortion or other kind of shady behavior, but greed, somehow, someway, is always front and center of a Chicago political takedown. These politicians often subscribe to the notion that public office benefits them, the politicians, not the other way around. In a city like Chicago then, it is not surprising that another politician was sentenced just last week, found guilty of corruption and taken down by his own greed, even if his name is Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Jackson was born into privilege, but at the time his unraveling began, he’d been a rising national political star in his own right. The son of Jesse Jackson, Sr., he attended a military high school, was a championship football player who was widely lauded for his agility and speed. Any of Jackson’s athletic achievements or familial advantages were tempered by a hyperactivity disorder which led to frequent disciplining in school, and ultimately caused him to repeat the ninth grade. Despite this diagnosis, which was never made public, Jackson graduated college with honors, and earned two more degrees: graduating from seminary and then law school. Jackson was involved in politics and civil rights causes throughout his teen and college years, so not surprisingly, he continued in public service upon graduation. After years dedicating his professional life to political and social justice causes, Jackson was ultimately elected to Congress via a special election in September 1995.

Over the years, Jackson undeniably attained success serving his congressional district often beating his opponents in re-elections by wide margins. His political star was rising on the national democratic front as well, and in 2008, Jackson served as the national Co-Chair for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. By this time, he was hobnobbing with the big boys, and eventually achieved such political prominence, he ascended to the ranks of the one-name-only club. Jesse Jackson, Jr. was now known simply as “Jr.”

Last week, a federal judge sentenced Jr., once a Chicago mayoral and Senate hopeful, to 30 months in prison for misappropriation of campaign funds for his personal use. This begs the question: what would cause an otherwise gifted and privileged politician to risk it all at the height of his career? Jackson spiraled down the road of self destruction with such callousness, repeatedly turning a blind eye to the consequences of his actions that would eventually lead to his downfall.

What’s interesting about Jackson’s fall from grace isn’t that he risked it all in a political pursuit, as is the historical norm for Windy City politicians, but rather that he risked it all in the relentless pursuit of the High Life. Some cite his bipolar disorder, but can we be so sure? I’m certainly not a physician, and although I am a lawyer, I am definitely not the judge or the jury.  I’m just saying that something seems a little suspect; be it the timing or the diagnosis, the shame or sheer fabrication, something just doesn’t sit right.

It is widely accepted that bipolar disorder left unchecked, can manifest itself in a wide array of erratic, narcissistic and often catastrophic behavior. But then again, can’t the same be said about greed? Both can cause you to tumble, head first, down the proverbial rabbit hole, to the point of no return.

Jackson’s fall from grace began after another Black Chicago politician was elected to the office of President of the United States. After Obama’s election,  Jr’s name was widely associated with Blagojevich’s botched effort to sell Obama’s then empty Senate seat.  It was around that same time that Jackson threw discretion to the wind and began to burgle his own campaign coffers to the tune of three quarter of a million dollars, taking lavish vacations, buying sports memorabilia, jewelry and making other useless purchases in an effort to keep up with the Joneses. Then, just when the water gets hot, conveniently, or not, Jackson disappears from political life, takes a respite from pubic view citing “mood disorder” and “exhaustion.”  He checked himself into various medical and treatment centers, emerging six months later and resigned from public office in November 2012.

Greed often causes people to steal and pilfer for no good reason. It manifests itself one way or another; tomato, tomah-to, it’s ultimately about the ego. Invincibility pushes them to live on the edge and results be damned, they throw caution to the wind and just go for broke. I recognize that behavior could be due to a medical issue, but as a public servant, you are obligated to check that behavior, do whatever it takes to get it under control. This is not a time for ego, but a time for action. After all, you were elected to serve the people, not vice-versa.

I've seen this before, and personally witnessed the fallout all around me. Case in point: I was a former partner at the New York law firm of Dreier, LLP, headed by the now infamous Marc Dreier. For those who watch “American Greed” , you may be familiar with Marc’s story: a brilliant Harvard educated lawyer turned high power litigator, who starts a New York law firm then grows the firm, as the sole equity partner, into a behemoth 500 lawyer nationwide firm. Then, unbeknownst to anyone, over a five year period, Marc began to singlehandedly swindle pension and investment funds out of $400 million dollars. He too, lived high on the hog with illicit funds: Dreier had the best artwork draping the walls of his New York penthouse and was so swanky, he was his own next door neighbor, owning side by side summer homes in the Hamptons. I escaped unscathed because I’d been there only a year and brought my entire practice into the firm with me and rolled it back out. Other lawyers who were totally dependent on Marc weren’t so lucky. Luck wasn’t on the side of Jr’s associates either, his wife Sandy was sentenced for falsifying tax returns, and his staffers were left seeking employment.

Both Jackson and Dreier slid down that rabbit hole. Jackson by having affairs, traveling and making superfluous purchases with campaign funds; Dreier was guilty of hawking fake securities and impersonating executives. Driven by greed, each lived a lavish lifestyle that, absent the thefts, they could not otherwise afford. Both ended up in jail; it’s the same stuff, different day.

This isn’t to say that Jackson doesn’t actually have a bipolar disorder, we will probably never really know. But this is to say that admitting to having such a disorder that affects nearly 6 million Americans, only after you are busted for disgraceful behavior, smacks of bad timing. You know yourself; you know when you are spinning out of control, and to use this as a crutch serves a great disservice to those who go to great lengths to correct what ails them. Many people who suffer from disorders stay on the straight and narrow. Take a page out of Catherine Zeta Jones’ book; she too suffers from bipolar disorder. But she gracefully and privately dealt with her diagnosis, before it became an insurmountable problem. When you take proactive measures, you emerge with your life in check. Instead of using the diagnosis as a crutch and letting the tail wag the dog, you take responsibility for your own destiny and are better for it.

If, politics, as Groucho Marx says, “is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies,” Jackson, timing or not, at least got that right.

Lisa Bonner is an Entertainment lawyer with offices in New York. Follow her on Twitter @lisabonner

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