The disgraced former member of Congress deserves acknowledgement for being willing to admit his guilt, but that’s about it.
The former Democratic Congressman from Chicago Jesse Jackson Jr. was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison on Wednesday as a result of his earlier guilty plea to fraud charges stemming from his misuse of campaign funds. Not too long ago Jackson, son of the famous reverend Jesse Jackson, was considered a rising star inside the Democratic Party. He was on the short list of potential appointees to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. In addition, was talked up in 2006 as a potential mayor for the city of Chicago and before that as a possible Secretary of Education in a hypothetical Gore administration. But instead of rising to new heights, Jackson began to unravel last summer after he took a leave of absence from Congress to seek treatment for what was later revealed to be bi-polar disorder and then revelations in October that he was under investigation by federal authorities for the misuse of campaign funds. Then 16 days after being re-elected in 2012, Jackson abruptly resigned.
Unfortunately some liberals have rallied to Jackson’s cause because of his past history of focusing on a lot of the issues that liberals care about. Issues like health care, improving education for poor children and raising the minimum wage. Back in November John Nichols wrote in The Nation that:
Through the vast majority of his time in Washington, Jesse Jackson Jr. was an accomplished and valuable member of the House—a progressive representative, yes, but more than that. He was an all-too-rare congressional champion who went beyond the call of duty in struggles for peace and economic and social justice.
Let me say that I agree with all of that. But the fact that Jackson spoke passionately about issues that liberals care about doesn’t mean he should be treated as a hero of contemporary liberalism.
Jackson didn’t commit small ethical lapses; he committed gross violations of the public trust that undermine people’s confidence in the government and their democracy. He admitted to using $750,000 in campaign cash for personal purposes to buy things like Michael Jackson memorabilia and a $43,000 Rolex. And this was no momentary lapse, he use campaign cash for personal purchases over 3,000 times. In addition, his wife Sandi admitted to omitting over half a million dollars in income on tax forms to cover their tracks while they lived a life of luxury. Nor is this the first time Jackson has been subject to allegations of impropriety. To be sure Jackson was never formally charged with any crime for his involvement in the scandal over President Obama’s old Senate seat that brought down Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. But his involvement in that scandal led to him being placed on the non-partisan watch dog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s list of the 15 most corrupt members of Congress in 2009.
For liberalism, or any political movement for that matter, to be effective it needs more than politicians that passionately believe in it. It needs champions that are able to both talk the talk and walk the walk. After all, how can Democrats argue for economic fairness in terms of policies like raising the minimum wage while one of its more prominent members in Congress is amassing a private fortune by abusing his public position? I’d argue it can’t, at least not without first publicly disowning the offender. Jackson may have done things like oppose the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, but the world is full of people who did the same thing. They don’t all deserve recognition in premier liberal magazines, especially after they’ve been forced to resign from Congress in disgrace.
If Jackson does deserve credit it should be for the fact that in an age where passing the buck has been refined to an art form, he was willing to take personal responsibility for his actions. As The New York Times reported, Jackson declared after sentencing, “I still believe in the power of forgiveness…Today I manned up and tried to accept responsibility for the error of my ways, and I still believe in the resurrection.” Unfortunately that apology doesn’t wash out the wrongs that he did. And that too needs to be remembered.
AP Photo by Evan Vucci