Before we know why Jesse Jackson, Jr. is actually taking so much time off, we can ask: Has anyone ever screwed up an explanation quite this much?
- In mid-June, Hill reporters noticed that Jackson was missing votes. They asked why. No immediate answer.
- On June 26, Jackson's office released an opaque statement declaring that the congressman was on "medical leave" for "exhaustion." and that he "asks that you respect his family's privacy." Which wasn't quite was reporters were asking about. They wanted to know why he was missing work, not anything about his family.
- By early July, reporters are chasing down rumors of what could have sidelined Jackson. A suicide attempt? No, says Jackson, Sr. to Politico. There is a minor break in the scandal over whether Jackson directed a donor to help Rod Blagojevich raise money -- a scandal Jackson endured, because it's tough to prove anything illegal happened -- but that story had been fading. ABC News points out that the fundraiser, Raghuveer Nayak,* had given hundreds of thousands of bribes to doctors.
- Finally, on July 11, Jackson's office announces that the congressman is "receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder." A "residential treatment facility" is a long way of describing "rehab."
How Jackson should have handled this depends entirely on what's actually happened to him. But we have two recent examples of politicians who engaged in behavior that hurt nobody but themselves, lied about it, and imploded. Former Rep. David Wu became erratic right before the 2010 elections, clammed up, and only talked about his therapy and painkillers after dogged local reporters had chased every angle of the story with the help of irritated former staff. I'm convinced that Rep. Anthony Weiner could have survived his scandal if he'd owned up right after accidentally tweeting a Seattle woman -- who had been engaging him, not harassed by him -- a picture of his crotch. Had he done so, the subsequent revelations that bloggers were creating fake Twitter accounts to try and Chris Hanson-ify him would have played out differently, probably more sympathetically. You wouldn't have had the bogus frenzy over Weiner being "in contact with an under-aged woman" in Delaware. Why do I say "bogus"? Because Weiner never sent her anything salacious. The hounds were on him because he kept bumbling and lying. The hounds stay put if you own up quickly and your electorate is keen to forgive you. And Weiner's district had voted for Bill Clinton twice.
The best thing Jackson has going for him is his district. It's one of the safest Democratic strongholds in the country, gerrymandered to include loyal black voters. Jackson doesn't face another primary until March 2014 -- that's more time than Ted Kennedy had between Chappaquiddick and his next primary. He hadthe most to gain from looking at how his colleagues melted down and thinking "Hrm, well, I won't copy that."
*Raghuveer Nayak here, Kindee Durkee in California -- please, politicians, don't trust your money to people with captcha codes for names.