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.