It’s time for Jesse Jackson Jr. to exit stage left

Opinion

U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Kennedy, left, meets with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.(AP Photo/Office of Patrick J. Kennedy)

U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, Kennedy, left, meets with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.(AP Photo/Office of Patrick J. Kennedy)

As President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney take to a stage in Denver this evening to debate their vision for the country’s future, far away in Chicago another politician’s fate hangs in the balance.

The curious case of Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. appears to grow more curious by the day. The saga over his battle with bipolar depression – and subsequent disappearance from the public eye – is entering its fifth month, as the Democrat’s challengers rightfully taken him to task for his failure to clarify his status. With Election Day drawing closer, does the congressman intend to resign, or will he cling to his seat by any means necessary?

The latter is the most probable scenario. As one would expect in a situation like this, Rep. Jackson’s family members have closed ranks around him. His wife, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, has branded the press “jackals” for their persistent questioning. His mother describes the “disappointment” that may have affected his mind state (because being an elected official in a safe district, as well as the scion of a civil rights legend, is a huge existential burden). His father and namesake, meanwhile, says there’s absolutely no rush for him to return to his day job – since heaven knows the nation’s mounting challenges can wait.

The defensive posture assumed by Rep. Jackson’s family explains why the congressman feels entitled to remain AWOL, even as the residents of Illinois’s 2nd congressional district ponder both his future and theirs. Truthfully, Rep. Jackson’s status is now less mere curiosity than a problem demanding immediate resolution.

This is no longer a question of privacy, or the removal of stigma from an illness so misunderstood that none dare speak its name. Rep. Jackson’s situation – which coincided with mushrooming ethics troubles — has now crossed the ever-eroding barrier between the personal and the political. If the news reports are to be believed – and sadly, that’s all the public has to go on because the congressman himself has yet to utter a word in his own defense – then Rep. Jackson is either unwilling or incapable of performing the job he was elected to do.

Virtually everyone wishes him well on the road to recovery, but this uncertainty raises questions about his fitness to serve as a member of Congress. In theory, Chicago’s political establishment really should be preparing for someone else to take his place on the ballot in November.

The reality, however, is far more complex. What is it about the civil rights establishment – and their progeny – that makes them entertain such notions of grandeur? Public offices are not meant to be sinecures or inherited thrones, yet good luck explaining that to entrenched politicians. Rep. Jackson’s disappearance, and his flagrant defiance of public opinion, illustrates a disposition endemic to the black political establishment. These elected representatives seem to believe a seat in Washington is a job for life, and indeed it becomes exactly that. Many are reelected year after year, regardless of whether they deliver any substantive change to their voters. As a result, public office has become an entitlement instead of a democratic privilege.

Congressman Jackson, along with many of his Congressional Black Caucus cohorts, are the worst manifestation of the “I am the state” attitude normally associated with a deceased French monarch. Unadulterated hubris forces Rep. Jackson to cling to his seat, and although the Democratic establishment should be clamoring for him to return to his job or resign, they refuse to do so. Surely the congressman must believe he can escape the wrath of constituents who won’t hold him accountable for his extended absence.

In some way, he may be correct in his thinking. Like far too many other black officials, Rep. Jackson benefits from a combination of shameless gerrymandering, voter apathy and grossly misplaced loyalties. Unfortunately, black voters are far too willing to overlook the flaws of their political representatives, returning them to office regardless of their numerous failures and lapses (Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel, please call your respective offices). Little wonder that the public’s trust in Congress is hunkered at abysmally low levels.

Rep. Jackson owes it to the public, and himself, to be honest about his ability to serve. The nation faces far too many challenges in the coming months – not least of which is an impending “fiscal cliff” that could see a raft of tax increases and spending cuts early next year. The congressman is entitled to confront his personal demons, but certainly not on his constituents’ time or the public’s dime.

To paraphrase Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, the 2nd district is not Jesse Jackson’s personal fiefdom, it’s the people’s seat. Should he refuse to be held accountable, the voters should foist accountability upon him. Or would that just be so much wishful thinking?