Jesse Jr. had in fact been struggling for some time. He had long suffered occasional but violent mood swings—laughing one moment, sobbing the next—so much so that nearly a decade ago members of his staff half-jokingly diagnosed their boss as bipolar. His condition worsened dramatically after the disappointment of not getting the Senate seat and the stress of the subsequent investigation and revelation of his adultery. The congressman who prided himself on never missing a vote became an absentee legislator. “He did absolutely nothing,” says former Illinois congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, who served in the House with Jackson in 2009 and 2010.
Earlier this year, however, Jackson was reenergized. Halvorson, who’d lost her reelection bid in 2010, ran against Jackson in the Democratic primary for his redrawn district—the stiffest electoral test he had faced since 1995. Jackson rose to the challenge, pouring himself into the campaign and, in March, he thumped Halvorson by taking more than 70 percent of the vote. But soon after his victory, he plunged into a deep funk. This may have been brought about by the fact that the FBI had opened an investigation into whether he’d used campaign money to decorate his home. But it seems just as likely that Jackson, having worked so hard to hold onto his seat, now had to confront the crushing reality that all of his effort had merely resulted in his remaining in the same place. According to a friend, Jackson began “drinking heavily, self-medicating, and going days without sleep. He was out of control. He was on a path that was self-destructive. Something had to change.” Indeed, although Sandi portrayed her husband’s hospitalization that night in June as a spur-of-the-moment decision, others close to Jackson suspect it was the result of a planned intervention—something the congressman’s friends and family had been discussing for weeks.
Five days after his father and brother took him to the hospital in Washington, Jesse Jr. checked in to the Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona, a facility a family friend had recommended because of its reputation for privacy. That discretion initially enabled Jesse Jr. to keep his condition a secret: It took more than two weeks for his congressional office to announce that he’d taken a medical leave of absence and even then his spokesman said it was for “exhaustion.” But when Jackson transferred to the Mayo Clinic for more intensive treatment in late July, he could no longer keep his whereabouts or condition under wraps. After receiving inpatient treatment at the Mayo Clinic for more than a month, he returned to his home in D.C., where he received extensive outpatient treatment, visiting with his doctor twice a day. But even that proved insufficient, and in late October, he returned again to Mayo. Jackson and his doctors still have no timetable for getting him back to work.
In addition to medical help, Jackson has been seeking political counsel, especially from the man whose nepotistic presence in Congress he once derided: Patrick Kennedy. Kennedy, who was treated at the Mayo Clinic for depression before he retired from the House in 2010, has visited Jackson in Minnesota and at his Washington home and has been struck by his former colleague’s condition. “He has always carried himself with a certain force of personality, and you could clearly tell what a grip this illness has had on him,” Kennedy says. “He was dealing at the most basic level with a sense of himself and with this overwhelming feeling of inconsolable grief. He was clearly debilitated.”
In his conversations with Jackson, Kennedy has encouraged his former colleague to think about a life beyond electoral politics—and to place his struggles in a broader context. “I’ve told him, ‘You’re going to be a great champion for the case of mental health because it’s a civil-rights cause, too,’ ” Kennedy says. “His father wore the mantle ‘I am a man,’ and it was a mantle that said, ‘Don’t dehumanize me because of the color of my skin.’ Now Jesse Jr. can wear that mantle in a new era, where the stigma has less to do with the color of his skin than the type of illness he’s suffering from.” Jackson, for his part, asked Kennedy to speak to Jackson’s father, who hasn’t been as receptive. “I think his father, like my father, comes from a generation where these issues aren’t spoken about,” Kennedy says.
In fact, the Reverend Jackson may have far more immediate political concerns. Although Jesse Jr. is all but certain to be reelected on November 6, his future in Congress is very much in doubt. In Chicago, his decision to remain on the ballot has been interpreted not as a sign of his intention to stay in office but as a gambit to deny the local Democratic bosses the opportunity to appoint his replacement. “I think the strategy is to push this past the election, to give him time to work things out with the doctors or the prosecutors or whomever,” a Chicago Democratic strategist says, “and then, if necessary, he’ll step down.” If that happens, Jackson’s seat would be filled through a special election. An open House seat on Chicago’s South Side would set off a political free-for-all, and already a number of state legislators and aldermen are positioning themselves. But the fighting for the Second District seat could be the most intense among the Jacksons themselves.