What Really Brought Down Jesse Jackson Jr.?
Policy + Politics

What Really Brought Down Jesse Jackson Jr.?

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Experts say the symptoms of people with bipolar personality disorder include feelings of invincibility, reckless behavior, disregard for consequences, foolish business and career choices, outlandish spending and gambling and sexual infidelity.

That certainly describes former Illinois Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., the son of the famous civil rights leader  and a veteran Chicago-area politician and organizer who was sentenced on Wednesday to two and a half years in federal prison.

A diagnosed bipolar Jackson and his wife pleaded guilty in February to using about $750,000 in campaign funds to finance personal lives of luxury. Mental health problems often are used to explain outrageous behavior or criminal activity. Earlier this week, for example, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s lawyer argued at a court-martial that his client was experiencing gender confusion and deteriorating mental health in the months that he leaked large amounts of classified data to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

During an emotional hearing at a D.C. courtroom packed with supporters and family, including his famous father and mother, Jackson accepted full blame for his actions, saying he failed miserably in separating his personal life from his political activities. “I misled the American people, I misled the House of Representatives, I was wrong, and I do not fault anyone” but himself, a tearful Jackson said.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson (no relation) echoed that point from the bench, saying that “The inescapable fact is that you and Sandra Jackson used campaign funds to sustain a lifestyle that you cannot afford.”

The couple dipped into Jackson’s bountiful campaign funds to pay for luxurious trips to Costa Rico, furs and expensive clothes, high-end apartments, a gold-plated Rolex watch and even such mundane expenses as car repairs and kitchen appliances.

The details of these crimes would make any taxpayer’s blood boil: The Jacksons admitted using campaign credit cards to make about 3,100 personal purchases over seven years, starting in August 2005, according to a Washington Post account. Among the expenses were a $466 dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s CityZen restaurant, $10,000 for multiple flat-screen TVs and DVD players from Best Buy, and $2,300 in transportation services at Walt Disney, where the couple entertained their two young children.

And yet, it is hard to completely divorce Jackson’s outrageous behavior from a frightening mental illness that plagues about 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The illness that often defies treatment wreaks havoc with family and friends, costs many people their jobs and typically leads to bizarre and tragic behavior. More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder such as Jackson’s, according to the federally funded institute.

In letters to the judge, Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and his wife, Jacqueline Jackson, sought to provide insight into their son’s outrageous and criminal conduct. “Growing up in the shadow of his father, Jesse Jr. has always tried desperately to live up to the expectations we have had for him,” Jacqueline Jackson wrote in one letter. “I think perhaps too hard, he has tried.”

Left unsaid was the fact that Sandi Jackson, a former Chicago alderwoman, served as her sick husband’s enabler, profiting from the gross political corruption. She pleaded guilty to one felony count of filing false returns and will serve a 12-month sentence after her husband completes his term.

In April 2011, Sandi Jackson revealed to the Chicago Sun-Times that she and her husband had undergone marital counseling and spiritual therapy since he told her nearly two years before of an extramarital affair. 

“He said it was over,” Sandi Jackson told the newspaper. “I was mortified and in agony, but he knew if I found out any other way it would be over. That the only way to save our marriage was to come clean.”
"There were sleepless nights and I started losing hair and I told him I would only consider staying if we got into therapy," she added.

Even if the therapy helped to salvage their marriage, it never fixed the underlying problems that seem to have now destroyed their lives.