Four years ago, in the fading light of a chilly December afternoon, Jesse Louis Jackson Jr. arrived at a Chicago office building for the most important meeting of his political life. As the eldest son of the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Jesse Jr. was no stranger to high-powered summitry. When Jackson was an infant, Martin Luther King Jr. paid visits to his family’s tiny apartment; as a teenager, he accompanied his father to meet with presidents in the Oval Office; by the time he was a young man, and a key adviser to “Reverend” (as he often addressed his father), he was traveling the globe for encounters with Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. Now, as the representative for Illinois’s Second Congressional District, Jackson was a political player in his own right—someone whose time was in demand by any number of powerful people, including Barack Obama, who’d tapped Jackson as a co-chair for both his 2004 Senate bid and his just-concluded presidential campaign.
The man with whom Jackson was meeting that afternoon was not a world-historical figure. Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was under federal investigation for corruption, and a recent poll had put his approval rating at 13 percent. And yet, as far as Jackson was concerned, Blagojevich was a political titan. It was his job to appoint the person who would fill Obama’s Senate seat—an appointment Jackson desperately coveted. Although he was just 43 years old, he had already spent thirteen years in Congress and was itching to move on to bigger things. “I grew up wanting to be just like Dad,” Jackson once said. “Dad wanted to be president.” He’d flirted with runs for U.S. senator and Chicago mayor as possible stepping-stones and was determined not to lose this opportunity. “He’d watched all these people whom he had helped pass him by, especially Barack,” Delmarie Cobb, a Chicago political consultant and a former Jackson adviser, says. “And he was like, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to do something!’”
Blagojevich and Jackson had once been friends. When they served together in Congress in the late nineties, they were so close that a colleague referred to the pair as “Salt and Pepper.” And when Blagojevich decided to run for governor in 2002, Jackson pledged his support. But then, according to people close to Jesse Jr., the Reverend Jackson intervened, urging his son to endorse a black candidate. “Junior said, ‘Reverend told me that I needed to shore up my base,’ ” one Jackson confidant recalls. “And he decided to take his dad’s advice.”
As a result, Jesse Jr. knew that, left to his own devices, Blagojevich would never appoint him to the Senate. So he launched an aggressive lobbying effort that would essentially leave Blagojevich with no other alternative. Jackson commissioned a poll that showed him to be the leading choice of Illinois voters to replace Obama. He secured endorsements from newspaper editorial boards and Illinois politicos. He even turned to his family’s celebrity friends. In a memo prepared for Bill Cosby, Jesse Jr. furnished the comedian with the governor’s home telephone number, the correct pronunciation of his name (“Blah-goy-a-vitch”), and talking points in favor of his appointment. “My strategy was to run a public campaign,” Jackson later explained, “as public as possible.”
But the campaign to get Jesse Jr. to the Senate also had a private side. Four days before the presidential election, Raghu Nayak, a Chicago businessman and a longtime friend and supporter of the Jacksons, approached Robert Blagojevich, the governor’s brother and chief fund-raiser, with a proposal. If Rod Blagojevich appointed Jesse Jr. to fill Obama’s Senate seat, Nayak and his friends in Chicago’s Indian community would raise $6 million for the governor’s reelection campaign.
Initially, the governor was not moved. As he infamously explained to an aide, unaware that the FBI had tapped his phone: “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and … I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing.” He told another aide that the thought of appointing Jackson was “repugnant” and that “I can’t believe anything he says.” But as Blagojevich repeatedly tried and failed to auction off the Senate seat—for monetary and political concessions—his opposition to Jesse Jr. seemed to soften. For weeks, Jackson had been seeking a meeting with Blagojevich, with whom he hadn’t spoken in four years, to discuss the appointment. On December 8, 2008, the governor finally granted him one.
For 90 minutes, the erstwhile friends, along with Blagojevich’s chief of staff, met in the governor’s Chicago office, one of the few places in Blago’s world the Feds hadn’t bugged. Jackson began the conversation with a mea culpa, apologizing to Blagojevich for not endorsing him in 2002. Then he proceeded to make the case for his appointment. He presented a binder full of polling data, newspaper endorsements, and letters of support. He also pledged that, if appointed, he would run with Blagojevich when both men were up for election in 2010. At no point, according to the subsequent sworn testimony of all three men who attended, was there any discussion of money. When the meeting was over, Blagojevich seemed impressed and told Jackson that it had been a good interview and he would soon have him back for another.