The Magazine

Senate, for Sale or Rent

It's all about the Jacksons.

Dec 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 15 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Early on the evening of November 25, I was met at the reception desk of WTTW, the PBS station in Chicago, by a pretty intern named Jennifer. She led me to what passes for the station's green room, a handsome conference room with a plasma television set playing along the far wall. I was left to await my seven minutes on a show called Chicago Tonight, where I was to flog a book I had written on Fred Astaire.

Two other men were in the room, both black. One was on a cell phone, seated at the edge of the table near the door, the other intently watching the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on the television set. Then a small, cheerful man, Hispanic, walked in, took off his raincoat, and introduced himself to me.

"Hello," he said, "my name is Luis Gutierrez." I knew of him as a longtime Chicago alderman, who is now in Congress. He had the professional politician's handshake and smile.

The man watching the television set greeted him and then came up to me. "Jesse Jackson Jr.," he said, offering me a handshake and smile of roughly the same well-practiced earnestness.

I would not have guessed he was Jesse Jackson Jr., so little does he resemble his father, the ubiquitous Reverend Jackson. He is compact, neatly pressed and polished, smallish, as opposed to his father's considerable height and bulk, with nothing of the ministerial bearing about him in either speech or manner.

Cheerful and lively, Gutierrez has a natural ebullience. He started talking about how pleased he is to have recently left his house and moved into what one gathers is a luxurious apartment. He talked about no longer having to worry about mowing lawns, shoveling snow, and the rest of the normal householder's quotidian duties. Jesse Jackson Jr. chimed in by saying that he rather looked forward to such chores. They were an outlet for him, gave him a chance to expend pure physical energy. As the two men talked, it occurred to me that neither, as minority congressmen, would have been permitted to hire, as a Second City comedian once put it, "a truckload of our good friends from across the border," and he didn't mean Canadians, to do these jobs.

The congressmen were to go on before I did. Gutierrez was called off to have makeup applied; Jesse Jackson Jr., a real pro at such matters, brought his own makeup and brush, which he carried in a smart leather kit.

Their segment was with a political reporter who asked them their views on the recent bailout moneys. These are Chicago politicians, simple if far from pure, and neither, outside the realm of getting himself elected and reelected, qualifies as a deep thinker. They handled the questions well enough, Jackson--his platitudes better enunciated and assembled-- sounding rather more knowledgeable than Gutierrez: No doubt the economy needs all the stimulus it can get, but we want serious oversight here, we can't just pass out billions of dollars without taking genuine responsibility for the taxpayers' money, yaketa, yaketa, yaketa.

Toward the close, the interviewer asked each man if he were interested in taking up President-elect Obama's vacant seat in the Senate. "I am," Jackson averred, "very interested." Gutierrez allowed that he too was interested and had only a few days before been called in by Governor Rod Blago-jevich to talk about the prospect of his doing so.

Their time on camera over, both men returned to the conference room. Slipping into their coats, Jackson, talking to Gutierrez now, said (best as I remember it): "You know, I'm a bit hurt that Blagojevich didn't call me in to talk about taking over the Senate seat. I wonder why he didn't?" They then all departed, including the man who had been on the cell phone, and I was left alone to watch an interview, held outside the studio, with William Ayers, before I, too, went on camera, to take my seven-minute turn.

Then, on a Tuesday morning, December 9, as they said at the end of the Pahlavi regime in Iran, the shah hit the fan. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald revealed that Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois, was auctioning off a gift that was his to bestow but not actually to sell: a two-year occupancy of a seat in that best of all American clubs, the United States Senate. A seat in the Senate is obviously a valuable thing, especially to those who have drunk the potion of political power, so why not attempt, the governor figured, to find out precisely how valuable it really is by putting it up on the open market? The entire country, while secretly pretending to be aghast by such corruption, was not so secretly charmed by the simple rawness of the governor's venture, quite new in politics, of cutting out the middleman and himself directly selling political offices.

The significance of the Blagojevich story isn't really that of a corrupt Illinois governor. There has been no paucity of these in the Land of Lincoln. The previous governor, a Republican in his mid-70s named George Ryan, is currently doing time for corruption. Corruption in Illinois may be the only true bipartisan politics practiced in the nation. As for Blagojevich, who is now in his second term of office, he is a man of monumental unsubtlety. When asked on the David Letterman Show if he thought Blagojevich ignorant or just nuts, John McCain said that he thought him "a rare blend of both." Everything about Blagojevich seems fraudulent, including his ambitiously coiffed hair, which turns out to be real.

No, the significant story buried within an old and obvious corruption story is what many people suspect will be the end of yet another American political family, the Jacksons of Chicago, Illinois. From what has thus far been released of Patrick Fitzgerald's report about Blagojevich's prospective buyers, we know that Jesse Jackson Jr. was mentioned on the telephone tapes as Candidate 5, and that serious money might appear on his behalf to pay for the president-elect's vacant Senate seat. Later it came out that an Indian-American businessman named Raghuveer Nayak, who has sought influence for the pharmaceutical and surgical centers he owns and runs, had offered to raise a million dollars to obtain the Senate seat for Jackson. According to the New York Times, Nayak had earlier contributed more than $200,000 to Blagojevich's various campaigns and at least $22,000 to Jackson's.

Whether Nayak offered to buy the Senate seat with Jackson's approval or not is unknown. Jackson claims to have no knowledge of it. Nayak may well have thought how pleasing to present the gift of a Senate seat, and how delightful, not at all by the way, to own a United States senator. In America, as we know, everything is possible.

Either way, if Jackson knew or didn't know, his career has been badly tainted. "He'll never serve in the United States Senate," an Illinois legislator said. On CNN, Jackson, himself has said that he is fighting for his life, by which of course he means his political career, though the two, life and career, in so thoroughly politicized a man, may well be coterminus.

Jesse Jackson Jr. has long had a serious problem, whose name is Jesse Jackson Sr. On the one hand, he owes his career to his father; on the other hand, his father is a bit--and often more than a bit--of an embarrassment. When his father, unaware that he was talking into a live microphone, mentioned his desire to castrate Barack Obama for lecturing blacks on the responsibilities of fatherhood, the son had to repudiate the father. In personal style, in manner, Jesse Jackson Jr. has quietly attempted to establish himself as apart from (if not be the actual anti-) Jesse Jackson Sr.

One of the richest fruits of Barack Obama's presidential victory for many is that it seems to spell the demise of Jesse Jackson Sr. as a major player in American politic life. With the rise of Obama, the Reverend Jackson--always at the factory gates, hovering over the graves of celebrities, inviting himself to speak wherever television cameras are humming--looks drearily dated, practicing a politics that seems antiquated and unnecessary, a dead letter walking. Jackson Sr. survived all the piquant scandals (his description of New York as "hymietown," his fathering a child with a woman not his wife, all the accusations of loose bookkeeping at Operation PUSH, the beer distributorships that seem to have fallen into the lap of his family), but he now seems to have been done in by history. His politics of victimhood, of moral blackmail, of dubious martyrdom have all, one hopes, been extinguished by the new president-elect, who, insofar as possible, admirably eschewed almost all mention of race through his long campaign.

The historical scenario called for the Reverend Jackson to shuffle off to Buffalo and for Representative Jackson to come on stage, all wonky earnest and nonministerial, the very model of the new African-American politician, 21st-century edition, bound for who knew what great things. But one cannot finally escape one's origins, and for a politician, when these origins happen to be the city of Chicago, state of Illinois, they are, as Jesse Jackson Jr. is discovering to his chagrin, even more difficult to escape. He may well have to serve out the rest of his political life languishing in the House of Representatives, a bleak fate this for an immensely ambitious young politician.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author most recently of  Fred Astaire (Yale University Press).