Politics has never been far behind for Jesse Jackson, Jr. He shadowed his father’s civil rights and presidential campaigns as a young adult. He spent his 21st birthday in a Washington D.C. jail cell after protesting apartheid at the South African Embassy. And when Nelson Mandela ended his 27-year prison term, he shared a Cape Town stage with the future South African president. By the time he was thirty, in 1995, “Junior” — as staffers affectionately call him — began serving Chicago’s South Side in Congress. And just two years later, in 1997, People magazine declared him America’s sexiest politician.
Jackson’s Congressional accomplishments are prolific. His attendance as a legislator was near perfect; he has even been caught sprinting to Capitol Hill in an effort to cast votes before ballots closed. He has secured nearly a billion dollars for projects in his lower-class district. And he has yet to lose that civil rights ethic, pushing for constitutional amendments in voting reform, healthcare, and housing. Supporters have fantasized about U.S. Senate and Chicago mayoral runs, convinced that Jackson could handle the tasks.
But the 47-year-old, who has been mysteriously absent from his post since June 10, revealed late Wednesday that he has been suffering from a “mood disorder” and is receiving treatment at an undisclosed inpatient rehabilitation facility. He and his associates expect him to recover and return to office by autumn.
Depression and mental illness have long histories in American politics, from the solitary late nights in offices to the glory of electoral stages. But medicine and clinical psychologyhave lessened the social stigmas of these conditions, even in Washington. The act of acquiring psychotherapy and prescription antidepressants is more nationally widespread than ever before. The Internet has allowed anybody with a computer to learn about mental disorders in vast ways. With the right information, minds can be managed. And if elected officials like Jesse Jackson, Jr. reveal similar personal conditions, the public trust will endure.
The possibility that Jackson is suffering from a kind of mood disorder will not threaten his political future. But since he has not depicted his situation explicitly enough, much information has yet to be uncovered. Staffers did not announce his absence until three weeks after his departure. The physician who examined him has not been publicly identified. And nobody suffers from a breakdown without a condition or event to back it up. The longer Jackson fails to discuss the specifics of his own physiological state, the less favorably those who have engaged in that process will perceive him.
This is not the first time Jackson has been involved with potential scandal. After Barack Obama was forced to vacate his Senate seat following a victorious 2008 presidential race, then-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich began searching for his successor. Blagojevich began serving his 14-year prison sentence in March after being found guilty of committing 18 acts of corruption, including an attempt to sell the position to the highest bidder. The House Ethics Committee is still investigating allegations that Jackson raised money and used Congressional staff to vie for the seat. Jackson maintains his innocence and has vowed to comply with committee protocol.
Senator Dick Durbin, Illinois’s most senior lawmaker, believes that politicians have just as much right to exercise the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which maintains an individual’s right to keep details regarding his or her treatment private, as anyone else in America. But if Jackson is hiding a scandal or corrupt practice of any kind, his seamless reputation on the Congressional left will dwindle. Durbin released a statement Wednesday, supporting Jackson’s recovery but warning of secrecy’s perils.
“I want him to get well, he’s got a beautiful young family and I want him to get well and be home with them,” Durbin wrote. “But when we accept this responsibility in public life, we have a burden to be more open about our private lives than most people.
The details behind Jackson’s mood disorder will not be vague for long. Either he or one of his insiders will eventually reveal his condition. And the day his struggle is made public, the veteran Congressman will not be a lone case in political science and mental health textbooks. Almost immediately after Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton was selected to become 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate, the media received numerous tips stating his history of psychiatric hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy. He wound up serving only 18 days on the White House ticket, a currently unsurpassed record.
Jennifer Duffy from the Cook Political Report told The Washington Post in 2006 that, politicians with mental health issues face much less risk for political shunning these days.
“Depression is one of these issues that can be dealt with,” Duffy said. “You have to sort of figure it out, the whys and the treatment, and then you can be okay… I don’t think it disqualifies him from future public office, if that’s what he wants.
The past 20 years signify the same exact message. New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, former U.S. Secretary of the Department of Puerto Rican Community Affairs, held a 1992 press conference in which she admitted attempting suicide a year prior. She also confessed to suffering bouts with depression, prescription drug abuse, and alcoholism, but she reassured constituents professional counseling had allowed her “a whole new outlook on life.” She was elected to Congress with 77 percent of the votes later that year.
Patrick Kennedy, a Representative from Rhode Island, revealed his fight with bipolar depression in 2006. But 67 percent of his district’s voters re-elected him into office.
Regardless of what develops out of Jackson’s mystery, he has little reason to worry. His district is one of the nation’s most consistently Democratic. Even if a larger scandal is uncovered, he has time for it to cool down. He does not face another re-election until 2014. And once that hurdle—if it even becomes one—passes, opportunities to run for Senate, governor, or any other office, will outlive the stigma.