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Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. speaks to constituents in Chicago in 2009. Jackson resigned from Congress on Wednesday, following a hospitalization and an investigation into misuse of campaign funds.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. speaks to constituents in Chicago in 2009. Jackson resigned from Congress on Wednesday, following a hospitalization and an investigation into misuse of campaign funds. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Jesse Jackson Jr. has a famous name and fabulous contacts, and had what looked like boundless prospects when he was first on the national stage at the Democratic National Convention in 1988.
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy had appeared to talk about the legacy of their late father, the president. But a few nights later, Jackson took the podium to present his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and said, "My name is Jesse Louis Jackson Jr., and I also proudly carry a great American name."
It seemed a signal, years before President Obama was elected, that America had grown to embrace a diversity of names beyond Kennedy, Bush or Roosevelt, but also a family that grew from the soil of the American civil rights movement.
Like many sons of famous fathers, Jackson Jr. mostly grew up under his mother's advice and influence. He went to prep schools, a seminary and law school before working with his father. Nelson Mandela and other Nobel laureates and celebrities were family friends, and Jackson carried a name he knew could bring powerful people to the telephone and inspire others to tears and prayers.
"I grew up in a house with great expectations," he told reporters, and from almost the moment he announced he was running for Congress in 1995, his name was bandied as a future candidate for senator from Illinois, mayor of Chicago and president.
But politics also gives points for timing. Congressman Jackson declined to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004 — the prospects looked unpromising for a Democrat — and Barack Obama unexpectedly won that seat.
Reading through news accounts, you can see clouds begin to darken Jackson's path in politics and his personal life in recent years.
In 2009, a supporter reportedly offered to raise millions of dollars for Gov. Rod Blagojevich if he appointed Jackson to Obama's unfinished Senate term. Jackson said he knew nothing about it.
Then, that supporter told the FBI he'd paid to fly a waitress from Washington, D.C., to visit Jackson in Chicago. The congressman called her "a social acquaintance" and asked for privacy for his family.
This year, he hospitalized himself for psychiatric evaluation. Jackson won re-election while under care, but another federal investigation has opened into charges related to misuse of campaign funds.
When he resigned his seat in Congress this week, Jackson said, "I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes," which reporters heard as preparation for a plea agreement.
His story is a human reminder, in this holiday week, that great gifts don't always wind up as great blessings.