What I know about the South Side of Chicago I know not from Barack Obama, but from Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. In the summer of 1997, I spent two days with him there. He was in his second term representing the area. He was fond of it, but the real message I got from him was: I want to be in the Loop, literally.
The son of the civil-rights leader had attended St. Albans School in Washington and gone on to earn a law degree. He of course knew the history of the movement, and revered it. He admired his dad, whom he called "The Rev." But it was clear that Junior hungered for proximity to established money and power.
He told me about the time that friends in the business world had taken him downtown for a tour of the Federal Reserve's branch on LaSalle Street. He had been ushered into the inner sanctum and shown the real stuff: bundled stacks of Benjamins.
Jackson laughed at the memory, but clearly was impressed. That was real clout, he said. Thatwas the way the world really worked.
I thought of Junior's trip to the bank when I read U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And I thought of Junior when I noted the suggestion, made by ABC News, that Junior was "candidate no. 5" in Fitzgerald's criminal complaint. On that candidate's behalf, prosecutors claim, "emissaries" allegedly offered to raise major cash for Blagojevich. In exchange, the prosecutors say, Blago was willing to name that candidate to fill Obama's suddenly vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Jackson has denied that anyone had been authorized to make payments or promises to the governor on his behalf. "It is impossible for someone on my behalf to have a conversation that would suggest any type of quid pro quo or any payments or offers," he told ABC. (On Thursday, Jackson's lawyer acknowledged that he is in fact candidate no. 5.)
Among Obama's many gifts are luck—and a knack for not staying long enough in any one place to be corrupted by the local culture. Luckily for him, the world economy is falling apart, which meant that he was too busy learning about credit default swaps to worry about who he wanted to replace him in his U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.
More important, Obama managed to be allied with, but not really captured by, a host of Chicago and Illinois factions. There are virtues in having a relatively short career, especially if you have to spend it in the gamey Land of Lincoln.
When Obama did choose sides, he chose early and wisely, thanks, serendipitously, to his wife's ties. He joined the Daley Family team—Mayor Richie and Brother Bill. And he kept a certain distance from Blagojevich, who by all accounts had become the worst of the worst—trading his early reformist label for harsh pay-to-play tactics, and a lunatic disregard for what the Feds were up to. (Blagojevich's office issued a general statement saying his arrest would have "no impact" on the people of Illinois, and that all business would continue.)
My sense is that there isn't much Blago can do to damage Obama. Yes, Obama was an early supporter and adviser in 2002, when Blago first ran for governor and Obama was positioning himself to run for U.S. Senate in 2004. Yes, Obama allies Rahm Emanuel and David Wilhelm (but not David Axelrod) did work on that campaign. But Obama had the sense to keep his distance—and he essentially got out of town before Blago went wild.
Obama might have more reason to be concerned about the Jacksons. The relationships are complicated. There is no real love lost between Jesse Jackson Sr., and the president-elect. Political junkies will remember Senior's private-parts excision threat, ostensibly because Obama wasn't pursuing the right agenda in the reverend's view. The real reason had more to do with simple, generational jealousy.
Yet Junior, who also had made his peace with the Daleys, was an early Obama supporter—and Obama was careful to cultivate, or at least pacify, the son. Junior worked hard for the ticket—and, just as important, worked hard to calm down his own father.
Friends of Junior told me long before the election that if Obama won, Junior felt he was entitled to the Senate seat. No hard evidence has surfaced that he wanted it badly enough to offer a deal to a guy everybody in town knew was under surveillance by the Feds. There also is no evidence that Junior even fleetingly ponder such a thing. In a press conference this afternoon, Junior adamantly denied having any knowledge of any untoward dealings with the governor over the Senate seat. "I denounce 'pay to play' politics," Jackson said, asking Blago to resign and announcing that the U.S. attorney's office had informed him that he was not a target of their ongoing investigation.
And yet if he is a target of serious suspicion, he could become a political headache for the president-elect. Junior has patiently played the game and, by his lights, waited his turn. If he decides that it has all been for naught, that he's being played for a sucker or the fool—that the Loop has turned against him—watch out.
Just after the press conference, I got a call from a friend of Jackson's who told me that the congressman feels none of this would have happened if Obama had only made clear from day one that Jackson was his choice to succeed him in the Senate. But Obama sought to stay neutral—in part because his good friend Valerie Jarrett initially expressed interest in the job. "Obama stayed out, and that's what led to this," said the friend, who declined to be quoted by name because he is personally close to Jackson (who in turn is now being told not to talk by his lawyer).
And Jackson's father? Well, as always, you never know what he might say.