Commentary Magazine


Political Princes and Corruption

The rise and fall of Jesse L. Jackson Jr. provides an object lesson in the one kind of entitlement that Washington has yet to successfully wipe out. The former congressman pled guilty today to counts of wire and mail fraud in connection with his embezzlement of $750,000 in campaign funds. The son of the famed civil rights leader who once seemed likely to occupy Barack Obama’s Senate seat will instead soon be residing in federal prison for a few years.

He’s not the first crook to take up space in Congress and won’t be the last. But he does tell us a little about the way some of our political class regard the system over which they preside as well as the problems that can result when one parachutes into the system the way Jackson did. It also illustrates why the creation of Congressional rotten boroughs in Congress is not good for the health of the body politic.

Most politicians who run afoul of the law tend to fall into two categories.

Some are middle class Americans who often find that their political power is not matched by the financial rewards that accrue to public servants. Governors, members of the House of Representatives and senators spend much of their time hobnobbing with the wealthy to raise funds or to be chatted up by lobbyists and business owners who want favors. For those politicians with limited resources of their own, their disparity between their own meager incomes and the settings in which they find themselves is sometimes so great that those without a moral compass succumb to the temptation to take free stuff in exchange for their influence.

That is no excuse but it also puts the complaints about Congressional pay into perspective. That is especially true when you consider that those members who are not independently wealthy are forced to maintain two households and to entertain on salaries that are far less than most of them would get in the private sector.

But Jackson is a different sort of case. The son of the famed preacher and sometime presidential candidate did not grow up in poverty. The elder Jackson became prosperous in no small measure by pressuring companies into supporting his non-profit groups via threats of boycotts. Though done in the name of equality and the service of the poor, it was nonetheless corrupt even if his victims uniformly believed it was cheaper to pay than to protest it.

Jackson, Jr.’s may have though the immunity that accrued to his father via his status as the man who cradled the dying Martin Luther King Jr. in his arms might attach to him. Having crossed the line from the private to the public sector, he failed to understand that even unopposed congressman couldn’t always get away with skimming campaign funds.

But Jackson’s problem can’t only be attributed to being the son of a civil rights figure that got very little scrutiny when not running for president.

For all the talk about the corrupting influence of campaign finance contributions, nothing is more inimical to good government than the creation of single party Congressional districts that serve to create a class of politicians who need not fear the wrath of the voters. While we have many single party seats in this country where the issue is decided in primaries rather than general elections, those elected in districts that were crafted on the basis of race rather than on a purely partisan basis are especially unaccountable. While not all or even most of those who occupy those seats are corrupt, there are enough examples to illustrate why politicians who need not fear the voters or the press are especially vulnerable to temptation.

Just four years ago, Jackson was immersed in another corrupt scheme — the effort to bribe Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich via intermediaries to appoint him to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency. He dodged that bullet as only the governor went down in that scandal. But the sense of entitlement that pervaded Jackson’s personal and political life was impervious to the message that perhaps he should clean up his act.

The tragedy of Jackson’s truncated political career is an object lesson in the perils of creating political princes who seem to be immune to the normal limits on behavior that restrain most politicians. His fall reminds us that even such persons can’t always count on avoiding the long arm of the law.

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