His fall from power repeats a familiar old story. Jesse Jackson, Jr. was elected to Congress at the age of 30 after his predecessor resigned in the wake of a sex scandal. Over the next 15+ years, Jackson surprised many by avoiding the spotlight that so often finds his father, Jesse Jackson, Sr. He carefully attended to the needs of his constituents on Chicago’s South Side while quietly building a reputation in Washington as a hard worker specializing in boring topics like health care.
After earning this reputation as a nose-to-the-grindstone worker and becoming a rising star in his party, Jackson surprised observers again when the whiff of scandal and corruption began to follow him. Jackson resigned his Congressional seat in November amid an ongoing federal investigation. A few days ago the Department of Justice charged him with taking more than $700,000 that had been contributed to his re-election efforts and using it to buy personal luxury items. His lawyer said he intends to plead guilty. Jackson issued this statement:
Over the course of my life I have come to realize that none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties. Still I offer no excuses for my conduct and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made.
But is that all there is to the story? Is this just another politician-brought-down-by-hubris story? It’s certainly commendable to refuse, like Jackson, to make excuses for one’s poor choices. Flimsy excuses by politicians provide a reliable source of material for this blog. But if there is a credible reason for poor choices that help to explain those choices, then no damage is done to one’s acceptance-of-responsibility efforts by offering up that explanation. Are arrogance, greed and a perverted sense of entitlement the reasons for Jackson’s corruption? Is this just the latest verse in a familiar Washington song? Or is there more to it?
Jackson suffers from bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression. Over the past year he’s spent considerable time in treatment at the Mayo Clinic. It’s an illness he shares–in one way or another–with 1 in 25 Americans. As the name indicates, those 4% swing between two poles: debilitating depression when it takes a supreme effort just to get out of bed to face the day and hypomania when one makes unwise choices out of an inflated sense of one’s own importance, abilities and invulnerability. Frequently, through the right medication at the right dosage, manic-depressives can control their symptoms and become fully-functioning members of society.
Binge buying is one of the red flags indicating bipolar disorder. One blogger endorsed an expert’s description of this as a “glorious scattering of money” which can take the form of impulsively wild shopping sprees , risky investments, extravagant gifts, or gambling. It differs from a shopaholic’s spending because the manic-depressive spends happily and without guilt to fulfill some grandiose, unrealistic plan born out of his or her sense of invulnerability and importance.
I make no claim to mental-health expertise, but Jackson’s purchases seem to fit squarely into this classic symptom of bipolar disorder. To put it plainly, he bought stupid stuff. $43,000 for a gold-plated Rolex. $5,000 for a football signed by U.S. Presidents. And $4,600 for Michael Jackson’s fedora. It is the classic “glorious scattering of money” that marks the hypomania stage of the illness. What saves the vast majority of manic-depressives from similar goofy purchases is not self-restraint or good judgment; they just don’t have a six-figure campaign fund to raid.
Bipolar disorder is no excuse for criminal behavior. If Jackson’s alleged misuse of campaign money was caused in part by his mental illness, he is still responsible for the crime and must still bear its consequences. But there’s nothing wrong with explaining that one’s bizarre–and illegal–behavior was caused in part by a mental-health condition for which one is now receiving proper medication and treatment. If his bipolar disorder contributed to his poor choices, he should tell us so. It will help us understand our friends, neighbors and family members who struggle with this common mental-health disorder. And it will help us understand Jesse Jackson, Jr. too.
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