Even by the jaded standards of Illinois politics, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.'s spending spree with his campaign cash sounds breathtakingly shameless, partly because it sounds so senseless.
Back in the early 1980s, his father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, famously said in a quote that haunted his two presidential campaigns, "I'm a tree shaker, not a jelly-maker."
Now it turns out that his son also was shaking a lot of trees — and spending the fruit on a lifestyle that was lavish enough to impress the Kardashians.
The final tally rung up by federal prosecutors charged the Illinois Democrat and his wife, former Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, with spending $750,000 in political campaign cash for their personal use on a bonanza of goodies — including a $43,000 gold Rolex watch, a $1,200 mink reversible parka, a retreat, a cruise and two mounted elk heads.
And there was the memorabilia, including a $5,000 football signed by U.S. presidents, a $4,600 fedora that belonged to Michael Jackson and other collectibles previously owned by Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee, Eddie Van Halen, Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hendrix's name made me wonder whether Jackson Jr. might have one of that rock star's lyrics in mind: "Manic depression is a frustrating mess."
Manic depression is a well-known symptom of bipolar condition, for which former Rep. Jackson's family revealed he has been treated for at Mayo Clinic. That sad diagnosis does not excuse his criminal actions, but it also shouldn't be ignored. If we can believe Mayo Clinic, as I do, the diagnosis helps make some sense out of his bizarre illegal spending excesses.
Among other symptoms for bipolar disorder listed on the U.S. National Library of Medicine's website are "reckless behavior," "lack of self control," "poor judgment" and "spending sprees."
On top of that, it is not hard to imagine how the pressures of a life spent in the public limelight as the namesake son of a controversial political celebrity, plus the strange sense of entitlement that comes from having people lavish millions of dollars in cash to your campaign funds, can distort your perspective.
I'll leave it to the judge to decide how much that should weigh on the final verdicts.
The Jacksons entered his-and-hers guilty pleas Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington. Jackson's sentencing by Judge Robert Wilkins is scheduled for June 28 and his wife's for July 1. The prosecution recommended four to five years for Jackson and one to two years for his wife.
"Tell everybody back home I'm sorry I let them down," he said to a Chicago Sun-Times reporter outside the courtroom.
He let down more than his own constituents. Since his election in 1995 he's been viewed widely as an up-and-comer and potential candidate for mayor, governor and beyond and a breath of fresh air from the old "Where's mine?" style of Chicago politics. Now he's better known for the gold Rolex and two stuffed elk heads.
After covering his famous father's political and civil rights crusades for a couple of decades I, too, had high hopes for Jesse Jackson Jr. Now I am reminded of San Francisco's late radio talk show host Lee Rodgers, who died Jan. 31, and his famous motto: "Never fall in love with a politician. They'll break your heart every time." Guilty.
Not that Chicagoans don't have a lot of reasons to feel cynical by now. "We're still the most corrupt city and metropolitan area," says political science professor Dick Simpson at the University of Illinois at Chicago — and my former alderman.
"We also have the third most corrupt state, with four of our last eight governors going to jail and 31 aldermen convicted since 1973, not including Sandi Jackson, two others on trial now and two others who died before trial."
Yet he tries not to be too cynical, Simpson says, as he produces more anti-corruption reports that the current mayor and governor appear actually to be reading, although getting real reforms passed is never easy. Chicago and Illinois politicians are hardly alone in that. They just find some creative ways to keep us shocked.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.