Are we witnessing the end of the Jackson dynasty? Where does this once beloved political family go from here?
With former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. pleading guilty to spending $750,000 in campaign funds on a personal spending spree—and his wife Sandra Stevens Jackson pleading guilty to knowingly filing false joint federal income tax returns—the couple is facing years of prison time.
Mrs. Jackson, who resigned as a Chicago alderman last month, failed to declare $600,000 to the feds.
For a man who was once considered a contender for mayor of Chicago, the fall from grace was swift and sudden.
But even more dramatic than the fraud and conspiracy charges against the son of the veteran civil rights leader is how so much was thrown away on so little, it seems. Is one’s career and reputation worth a $43,000 Rolex watch, nearly $9,600 in children’s furniture, over $14,500 in dry cleaning, $5,800 in drinks and $5,150 in furs? An even better question: Is the legacy of the civil rights movement worth a man benefiting from his father’s name and enjoying a lavish lifestyle in the process?
“Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties,” the former congressman said in a statement. “Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made.”
“The guilty plea today is so tragic because it represents such wasted potential,” said U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. at a news conference. “Jesse Jackson Jr. had drive, the ability and the talent to be the voice of a new generation, but he squandered that talent. He exchanged that instead to satisfy his personal whims and extravagant lifestyle.”
Meanwhile, in light of his brother’s political woes, Jonathan Jackson, a professor at Chicago State University, was viewed as a possible replacement for Jesse Jr. in Congress, but declined to run for the seat due to a lack of interest in politics.
So, now what? As for Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who may have had hopes of building a political dynasty that once knocked on the White House door, just as another prominent black Chicago family moved into the White House, it would appear that dynasty has ended. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Empires and dynasties decline and crumble for a variety of reasons, including corruption, greed and excess, mission creep, and mediocre successors to the throne. Old dynasties are replaced, and time goes on. The senior Jackson, known for his role in the civil rights movement working with Martin Luther King, became a power broker with his 1984 and 1988 presidential runs. He has a long track record of fighting for economic and social justice for the poor and disenfranchised, and for his international activism, including aiding in the release of Americans captured in foreign countries.
His accomplishments are to be honored and appreciated, personal foibles, stumbles and all. After all, no one is perfect, and we are all human beings with imperfections. But that otherwise great legacy does not translate into a right to cash in the chips of past civil rights struggles for personal fame and perpetual power.
Certainly, Jesse Jackson Jr. is not the first politician to use campaign cash for personal aggrandizement, nor will he be the last. Other lawmakers, including African-Americans, have been caught with their hand in the cookie jar while trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Public service is a privilege that is desecrated by far too many, which is why there is so little faith in political leadership today. Further, when people invoke the movement as their source of legitimacy, the stakes are higher and more is expected of them. They voluntarily place themselves on a higher pedestal, allowing for a much harder fall on the way down. And in the end, people suspect they were only in it for the money in the first place.
Jesse Jackson Jr. has shown contrition and has apologized to his family, friends and supporters for the mistakes he has made. The former congressman said that “while my journey is not yet complete, it is my hope that I am remembered for the things that I did right.”
Humility and adversity, which Jackson is apparently experiencing now, are among the traits of an effective leader. And while he let many people down and is facing jail, his story is not yet completed. Everyone deserves second chances, and is worthy of redemption. If Rep. Jackson Jr. is guilty, then so too are the many in the black community who traded in “we shall overcome” for the empty materialism of “I’ve got mine, better get yours.”
Meanwhile, never mind the played-out talk of political dynasties. Power for power’s sake, to be inherited by future generations who may not deserve it because they did not have to earn it, is not a useful pursuit. Rather, true power lies in helping others rather than serving inflated egos or lining pockets, and the rest falls into place. Perhaps this is the future of the Jackson family legacy, should they choose to pursue it.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove