CHICAGO (AP) — In the cluttered office where he’s met with some of the nation’s top politicians and preachers, penned rousing speeches and planned civil rights marches, the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks so softly — and with so little enunciation — that one strains at times to hear him.
At 71, he still keeps a hectic schedule and speaks extemporaneously on everything from voting rights to hostages in Gambia. But the head of one of America’s most prominent families struggles when addressing one thing: the son and heir to Jackson’s political influence who abandoned his congressional seat last week because of mental health problems and two federal investigations into his political dealings.
Sitting in his office — among photographs of mentor Martin Luther King — the elder Jackson’s body tenses, he sighs and his eyes drift off.
“My heart burns,” he told The Associated Press. “As I always say to my children, champions have to play with pain. You can’t just walk off the field because you’re hurt.”
Over the last 40-plus years, Jackson has played many roles — barrier-breaking presidential candidate, international hostage negotiator and master orator. There was a time when his presence alone inspired swift action and attracted throngs of reporters. Now it’s different.
These days, Jackson is more likely to seek out media attention rather than waiting for journalists to come to him. If his voice in national affairs is muted, it’s also because reporters don’t listen as closely as they used to.
“He’s not the magnet for the press he once was,” said David Bositis of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who has known Jackson for years.
Associates and historians say it’s partly natural: Jackson is older, and the dynamics of civil rights activism have changed. His role as an inspiration for African-Americans has been altered by the rise of President Barack Obama and a new generation. But those who know him also attribute Jackson’s lower-key role to the last three years of troubles surrounding his eldest son. And some are concerned that the son’s woes could hurt the family’s image and legacy.
“Yeah, things might get damaged a bit,” said U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a Chicago Democrat. “But you can’t erase the fact that Jesse Jackson Sr. has gone into foreign countries and brought back hostages that the state department could not get.” Jackson “has raised issues that nobody else would be raising at the time, and then ultimately other people would join in. And before you knew it, you had a movement.”
The reverend groomed his namesake for the public stage, giving him name recognition and helping launch his career. The younger Jackson introduced his father during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. They co-authored a book. When Jackson Jr. took office in 1995, he was viewed as a rising star with potential to seek the nation’s highest offices, following a trail blazed by his father. He held a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and co-chaired President Barack Obama’s first campaign.
Then, in late 2008, everything began to change.
The investigation that toppled former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich revealed that the younger Jackson may have been involved in discussions about raising money for the governor in exchange for an appointment to Obama’s former Senate seat. Jackson ceased almost all public appearances, and a cloud of suspicion hung over him, even though he has never been formally charged with any wrongdoing.
Legal proceedings also revealed that Jackson Jr. had had an extramarital affair, the same type of indiscretion that embarrassed his father almost a decade earlier. Jackson Jr. remained under a House Ethics Committee investigation until his resignation last week and still may face its final report.
Then earlier this year, just after the arrest of a former campaign fundraiser connected to the Blagojevich allegations, Jackson disappeared on a mysterious medical leave, which the family later said was for treatment of bipolar disorder.
While the father won’t address the son’s legal issues, he said it was difficult to watch his child struggling with the decision to step down, something doctors at treatment facilities in Arizona and Minnesota recommended immediately. He’s hopeful his son will recover soon and possibly return to public work.