Jackson was elated. That night, he confided to friends that he believed he was on the verge of getting the appointment. He seemed to be at a pinnacle. He was almost the same age his father had been when he first ran for president. Smaller and less somber than Reverend, with lively eyes and a ready smile, he was in the best physical shape of his life, having lost nearly 100 pounds thanks to bariatric surgery and a rigorous exercise regimen. And now he was about to be a United States senator. “Junior felt really good,” one of his friends recalls, “like this thing was finally going to happen.”
The next morning, Jackson awoke to the news that Blagojevich had been arrested on corruption charges for, among other things, trying to sell Obama’s seat. Even worse, Jackson soon learned that the politician referred to in the indictment as “Senate Candidate Five”—who Blagojevich was heard on recordings saying had offered, through an associate, “pay to play” in exchange for the seat—was him. “All of his hopes were dashed,” Jackson’s friend says. “He went from as high as a person can be to as low in twelve hours.”
In a panic, Jackson got on the phone. One call was to his father, who, in turn, dialed his old friend Raghu Nayak and conferenced his son in. Jesse Jr. asked if the FBI had been in touch with Nayak; yes, he said. Another phone conversation Jackson had that day was with a lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. According to Natasha Korecki’s new book on the Blagojevich case, Only in Chicago, Jackson was seeking assurances that he himself wasn’t about to be indicted when he confessed: “I’m somewhere between a nervous breakdown and insanity.”
In the four years since, Jackson’s predicament, and his state of mind, have only deteriorated. Although he steadfastly maintains that he did not authorize Nayak, or anyone else, to bribe Blagojevich—nor has he ever been charged—the episode has cast a dark cloud on his career. Nayak, who was indicted this summer on unrelated fraud charges, has told federal investigators that Jackson did indeed put him up to a pay-to-play scheme. Nayak also told investigators that he twice paid, at Jackson’s request, for a Washington cigar-bar hostess and swimsuit model to fly to Chicago to visit the congressman—a revelation that, when it was leaked to the Chicago Sun-Times, ultimately forced the married Jackson to publicly admit to adultery. He is currently facing not only a House Ethics Committee investigation into the Blagojevich matter but also a separate federal criminal investigation into whether he used campaign money to decorate his Washington home.
This past June, Jackson took a medical leave from his House seat and disappeared. For weeks, the public—and even members of his congressional staff—did not know what was wrong with Jackson or where he was. Finally, in late July, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota revealed that Jackson was being treated there for what was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder and depression. He was released in September, then readmitted last month. Although he is almost certain to be reelected to his ninth term in Congress this week, it remains unclear whether he will ever return to his job—and there is much speculation in Washington, D.C., and Chicago that he will resign soon after he wins.
Some of those closest to Jackson believe his medical problems resulted from, or were at least triggered by, his recent political difficulties. “He thought he was going to be a senator. He thought he was going to have a chance to run for mayor,” his mother, Jackie Jackson, told a group of supporters in July. “And young people don’t bounce back from disappointment like me and my husband.” But Jackson’s troubles may stem from something much deeper than mere disappointment. His is the story of a tremendously gifted politician who has spent his life wrestling with a legacy—and a man—that has been both a blessing and a curse. “After the Blagojevich stuff, he was obviously dead man walking as far as him moving up the ladder, but I don’t think anyone thought it would get to what it is now,” says a prominent Illinois Democrat who was once close to Jackson. “I think he knew that his name played a large part in getting him to where he was, but he also realized that his name would always hold him back from achieving his ultimate goals. And I’m not sure he ever figured out how to deal with that.”
His name was almost Selma. In March 1965, Jesse Jackson, then a 23-year-old seminary student and a disciple of the Reverend King, was traveling in Alabama when he stopped at an Esso station’s payphone to call his wife, who, when he left on the trip, was heavily pregnant with their second child. As he kept a wary eye out for the Alabama State Police, Jackie informed him that she’d given birth to a son. Seized by the moment, Jackson told his wife he wanted to call the boy Selma, where he had just been with King and other civil-rights activists to protest the “Bloody Sunday” march. But Jackie wouldn’t go along. She decided that their eldest son would carry his father’s name.