I once met Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at a restaurant in D.C., where he was entertaining a table of genial conservative lobbyists and hatchet men. All assured me that he was a decent sort — and in those brief interactions, he appeared to be — willing to work with the other side, and considerably more moderate than his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. One can make a reasonable case that his moderation is one of tone — he’s a committed liberal but one with little time for clenched-fist radicalism. But as Sylvester Monroe argued in The Root in 2010, Jackson’s tenure in politics has been seriously hampered anyway, his effectiveness as a legislator compromised by mounting scandals.
Because he has a lower profile than his father, few people outside his district noticed when, last month, Jackson took leave from his seat for “exhaustion”— that resilient little euphemism that typically obscures something embarrassing or sinister. Jackson’s office updated his status a few weeks ago, with an equally opaque message claiming that the representative has “grappled with certain physical and emotional ailments privately for a long period of time.” The plot thickened.
Now we are two weeks out since the last update-that-didn’t-really-update, and even Jackson’s fellow Democrats are losing patience. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin urged Jackson to update his constituents “soon” and explain “the physical condition he’s struggling with,” even though it’s not clear that if the missing congressman is suffering from something “physical.”
“As a public official though,” Durbin said, “there reaches a point when you have a responsibility to tell people what you’re facing and how things are going.”
With so few facts available, I can only say that if Jackson is indeed suffering from either physical or mental ailments — real problems that must be attended to by real medical professionals — it would be heartless to wish him anything but a speedy recovery. But as ABC News points out, Jackson is facing an ethics probe, and just “days before he left Congress on medical leave, a former fundraiser for Jackson, Raghuveer Nayak, was arrested by the FBI on charges of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to doctors.” Any disappearance shrouded in this much secrecy and circumlocution deserves a healthy dose of irritated skepticism.
Need I point out that Jackson is employed by his constituents, most of who cannot simply disappear from their jobs for a month without explanation? When a public servant claims that his ability to perform his job is hindered by health problems — the type that require at least a month of treatment — their medical affairs are no longer entirely private affairs. I can think of only two recent examples of politicians refusing to inform their subjects of serious medical conditions, save oblique references to a general diagnosis: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. When I was in Caracas in February, Chavez was about to again disappear to Cuba for treatment of his mystery illness. Responding to a question about whether Venezuela could still be considered a democracy, an opposition journalist huffed that in democratic countries like the United States, politicians cannot simply disappear for weeks at a time, never telling the public exactly why. I agreed.
Jesse Jackson Sr., who famously shouted “viva Fidel Castro” on a trip to Havana, told reporters that “at an appropriate time," his son would "share with the public that which he feels they should have.” But that won’t do. The younger Jackson’s party should give him until the end of the week to enlighten the people of Illinois or return to work. And if he refuses, it should demand his immediate resignation.