Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Jackson Family tree

Yesterday, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. pleaded guilty to converting campaign funds to personal use, and will likely face substantial prison time when he is sentenced in June. The list of things he bought with about $750,000 in campaign funds is almost comical - $7,000 for an elk head, $320 at a Build-A-Bear store, $4,600 for one of Michael Jackson's old hats - and you can read more of the details in this New York Times account.

But I'm not here to revel in the failings of another. Instead, the story of Jr.'s downfall reminds me of a story I was once told about his wretched father, the "Rev." Jesse Jackson. The old man has been poison in the American political system for decades, a race hustler of the worst kind who has conned and extorted businesses and organizations out of millions of dollars over the years by threatening boycotts and demonstrations, all in the name of "civil rights."

I came to know a businessman who had a number of successful stores in the Chicago area in the 1970s. (I'm not going to use his name because I've never asked permission to tell his story.) One day he was approached by the "Rev." Jackson, who claimed to be very "disturbed" that my friend was running a successful chain of businesses, but didn't have enough black managers or employees to make Jesse happy. Jesse intimated that this situation would need to change, or else there could be "trouble" ahead.

My friend - not well-versed in the Jackson shakedown method - took Jesse at his word, and set to work designing a plan that would make it possible for a number of black would-be entrepreneurs to enter the business. My friend would identify possible locations, make a personal loan to provide a down payment, and work with a local bank to guarantee loans that would allow the individuals to open a franchise. It was a pretty ambitious plan.

He summoned Jesse to his office and laid out the plan, which would have allowed for black ownership of successful businesses and increased black employment in the Chicago area.

Jesse had no interest in the plan. What he wanted, he said, was a substantial cash contribution to his organization - PUSH, or the Rainbow Coalition, or whatever scam he was currently running - and all of the problems would go away.

About that time, the light bulb went off over my friend's head as he realized that Jesse's agenda had nothing to do with improving the lives of blacks; The only agenda item was lining Jesse's pocket. He more or less told Jesse to get lost - essentially calling his bluff - and Jackson slinked away.

Years later, Jackson's methods were exposed in the book "Shakedown," which documented the many ways Jesse leveraged alleged racial grievances to steal money from the government, businesses and
charitable organizations. The book is still in print, and is a terrific read.

(Fun part of the book: Jesse loves to tell the story of how he wanted to play quarterback at the University of Illinois, but says he was told by the coach that "blacks can't play quarterback." Except that it turns out that Illinois DID have a black quarterback that year, just one who was more talented than Jackson.)

(Another fun part of the book: The morning after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Jesse flew to Chicago to appear on the "Today" show, wearing a shirt that he said was stained with the blood of Dr. King, who "died in my arms." The fact is that Jesse wasn't even on the balcony when King was shot (he was down below, in the parking lot) and he never got close enough to have been bled on by Dr. King. But he created his own myth, and told the lie over and over again until he probably even believed it.)

(For a great interview with the author of "Shakedown," click here.)

Which brings us back to Jesse Jr., for whom it's hard not to have a little sympathy. If you spent your formative years watching daddy lie, extort and steal his way into Democratic Party prominence with race hustling, that probably seems like normal behavior. Now the kid will go away to prison for being an only slightly different kind of grifter than his father was. The apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

One of my favorite days of the year

Every day there are fewer and fewer people alive who can say they've been around for every Super Bowl, the 47th of which will kick off in a few hours. I'm happy to be one of them and, obviously, I hope I'm still able to say that when Super Bowl LXX rolls around.

The first Super Bowl wasn't even called the "Super Bowl." On January 15, 1967, the champions of the National Football League - Green Bay - and the champions of the American Football League - Kansas City - met in what was called "The AFL-NFL World Championship Game." In 1966, the two rival leagues had agreed to a merger, but the entity wouldn't become a single league until the start of the 1970 season. In the meantime, they would operate as separate leagues, but would each send a representative to this new-fangled "Championship Game."

(Some time later, the story goes, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's young daughter was playing with a toy known as a "Super Ball." Rozelle heard the name of the toy, and decided the championship game would be known as the "Super Bowl." If you go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, you can see young Ms. Rozelle's Super Ball on display.)

What I remember most is that the game was broadcast on two channels. CBS (Channel 4 in the Twin Cities) had the NFL broadcast rights, while NBC (at that time Channel 5) had the AFL rights. With no agreement in place, both networks decided to carry the game, and 10-year-old Tim Droogsma thought it was great fun to switch back and forth between channels and see the exact same thing happen from different camera angles. (Though I had to kneel in front of the TV and manually turn a knob to change the channel, remote controls having not yet been invented. Yes, kids, I'm THAT old.)

That sort of dual-track approach applied to a number of aspects to the game. When Kansas City had the ball, they used the AFL football, made by Spalding, and when the Packers had the ball, the NFL football, manufactured by Wilson, was put in play. The officiating crew was partly NFL refs, partly AFL.

It was close for a while, but the Packers eventually pulled away. Played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the game wasn't even a sellout.

Over the years, of course, the NFL's popularity exploded, as did that of the Super Bowl, which grew to become the global event it is today. I can't say that I've watched every minute of every game, but I've certainly watched parts of every one. The only one I attended in person was Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, at the Metrodome. A friend arranged for me to work for UPI that week, so media credentials got me into good parties - I met both Donald Trump (with Marla Maples on his arm) and Jill Goodacre that week - and on Sunday I was assigned the job of writing the story on whomever was selected as the game's MVP. The Washington Redskins trounced Buffalo, and midway through the 3rd quarter Washington led 24-0 and it was obvious that Redskins QB Mark Rypien would be the MVP. The story practically wrote itself, and all I had to do was plug in a couple post-game quotes. The halftime show included Dorothy Hamill skating little circles on some synthetic ice, and Gloria Estefan doing some singing. I sometimes still wear my Super Bowl XXVI sweatshirt, much to my family's chagrin.

But what I've grown to love about the Super Bowl is not so much the game itself as it is the spectacle of it all. I see the Super Bowl as a celebration of everything American. Sure, other nations can compete with us in baseball or basketball or hockey, but football is the uniquely American game. And when the Super Bowl rolls around, 110 million or so of us sit down to watch in the closest thing we have to a communal national event. We eat tons of nachos, drink oceans of beer, wager millions of dollars and watch to enjoy the commercials as much as the game. It's the ultimate example of wretched American excess, and I love every minute of it.

Everything is overdone, from the multi-hour pre-game shows to the gaudy player introductions to the coin flip, and I take great joy in all of it. When they roll out the big flag, strike up the anthem and the flyover comes roaring by (the effect of which is somewhat diminished when the game is played in a dome, as it is this year), I'm not ashamed to say I choke up for a moment. The Super Bowl is America's moment, doggone it, and while the Chinese are buying up our economy, the Japanese and Koreans make better cars than Detroit  and we still need to import most of our great hockey players from Canada and Europe, none of them have anything to compare to the Super Bowl. It's our day, our moment, and it trumps your World Cups, Grey Cups, Tours de France and everything else put together.