Eventually, Jesse Jr. grew tired of the fight. One day in the early nineties, he unburdened himself to the late journalist Marshall Frady, who was writing a biography of the Reverend Jackson. “He won’t listen,” Junior complained of his father. “We keep telling him, ‘Why won’t you listen to us? We don’t want anything from you or anything. You can trust us.’ ” In obvious anguish, the heretofore dutiful son went on: “I’ve given it over six years of my life. Now I’m gonna go off and prepare myself to make my life. It’s time. I got to. Then I can come to him, you know, from a foundation of my own, and then maybe he’ll listen more. But I’ve got to start making my life now. Doing something myself.”
One morning not long after Jesse Jackson Jr. was elected to Congress in 1995, he boarded a flight at O’Hare for Washington. As he walked down the jetway, a cameraman from a Chicago station trailed after him, but blocking the path, and putting his hand over the lens, was Jesse Jackson Sr. Later that day in Washington, the same cameraman was trying to film the new congressman as he chatted with his colleague John Conyers—when, once again, the Reverend Jackson placed his hand in front of the lens. It was then, according to Delmarie Cobb, who was the younger Jackson’s campaign press secretary at the time, that Jesse Jr. pulled his father aside. “This is completely disrespectful to me, and you would have a fit if I did this to you,” he said, seething. “You will not do this to me again.”
The tension was not surprising. The Reverend Jackson had been against the idea of his son’s running for Congress from the very beginning—he thought he should aim for a lower office. To which Jesse Jr. responded: “If a 26-year-old Patrick Kennedy can be in Congress, then a 30-year-old Jesse Jackson Jr. could be there, too.” Although the Reverend Jackson ultimately relented, campaigning and raising money for Jesse Jr., he seemed uncomfortable sharing the spotlight. On the night Jesse Jr. won the five-candidate Democratic primary (and, thus, essentially the race), the Reverend Jackson insisted on introducing his son at the victory party and spoke for so long that he knocked Jesse Jr. off the ten-o’clock news. A few days before Junior was elected, the Reverend Jackson, who’d been living in Washington for nearly a decade and serving as “shadow senator,” announced with great fanfare that he was returning to push and Chicago, knocking his son off the front pages of the Sun-Times and the Tribune.
What most rankled Reverend was that Junior’s entire approach to politics seemed to be a rebuke. The younger Jackson’s aides—a number of whom had worked for the Reverend Jackson—told potential supporters: Junior is not his father. He really is going to work hard. He was a stickler about making votes, missing not one during his first thirteen years in Congress, and he shied away from publicity. “I’ve had ten press conferences in ten years. My father had ten press conferences yesterday,” he liked to joke. He fought for and won a seat on the Appropriations Committee and began bringing buckets of federal dollars back to his district. John Schmidt, a prominent Chicago lawyer, recalls a meeting with Jesse Jr. when Schmidt was running for governor in 1998. Jackson wanted to give him a tour of his district, and Schmidt had budgeted a couple of hours; the tour wound up taking the whole day. “He knew his congressional district at the level an alderman knows his ward,” Schmidt says. Most important, Jackson was more careful than his father around issues of race—frequently trying to reframe them as economic issues in order to broaden his appeal to white voters. “My dad needs to come out here and see this,” Jackson once boasted at a fund-raiser that was well attended by his white supporters. “This is a real Rainbow Coalition.”
But one skill Jackson gladly learned from his father was oratory. As a young man, he had closely studied his father’s speaking style, often mouthing along to his speeches, and by the time he arrived in Congress, he was a masterful speaker himself. That talent, combined with the ones his father didn’t share, led some aides to refer to him as “Jesse Plus.” “They said his father was a tree-shaker and not a jelly-maker,” Cobb says. “Jesse Junior was both.” The former Alabama congressman Artur Davis, who served with Jackson for eight years, ranks Jackson in the top ten of the approximately 250 members of the Democratic Caucus with whom he served. “Jesse Jr. was one of the more prodigious political talents of his generation, bar none,” Davis says.