Jesse Jackson Jr. and the perils of narcissism

    The rise and fall of Jesse Jackson Jr. – son of the civil rights legend, prominent Democratic congressman, champion of the poor – brings to mind something that the poet T. S. Eliot once said: “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important…. They are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”

    And in the service of that struggle, these people often do great harm – to themselves, and to their friends. Jackson’s political friends have learned that lesson the hard way. They surely assumed that their campaign donations would be used for campaign purposes, to buttress Jackson’s national aspirations and fuel his liberal policy agenda. They surely never dreamed that he’d set aside some of that money – three quarters of a million dollars – and use it to live like a boy king.

    And what a lifestyle it was! As evidenced by a federal court document released on Wednesday – the same day Jackson pleaded guilty to charges of “willingly and knowingly” committing fraud – he was lord and master of what should be known as the Jesse Jackson Self-Important Fund.

    This de facto fund – which, per the mandatory sentencing guidelines, will likely to put him in prison for up to five years – was financed with other people’s money. He regularly drew on that account to buy all kinds of fun stuff: a $43,000 gold-plated Rolex, $10,000 worth of Bruce Lee memorabilia, $15,000 worth of kitchen and laundry appliances – but that’s just for starters. He spent $466 on dinner for two at an Asian restaurant, $4600 on a Michael Jackson fedora, $5000 on a football signed by some presidents, $5700 on a Martha’s Vineyard vacation, $10,000 on a mink for his wife, $11,000 at Best Buy, $14,000 on dry cleaning, $16,000 at sports clubs, and $17,000 at tobacco shops.

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    DisneyWorld, Costco, cruise ships, kids’s furniture, an Eddie Van Halen guitar, some stuff once owned by Jimi Hendix ….All told, 3100 purchases with campaign money. And did I mention the $7000 that went to a taxidermist in Montana? That’s on page 15 of the court document, under my favorite heading: “Purchasing Elk Heads.”

    So, once again, the questions: What is it with these people, anyway? What goes through their heads? Why do they think the rules don’t apply to them? Why do they think they will never get caught?

    John Edwards offered some answers on ABC News after he got caught. His rapid public rise, he said, “fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism, that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible. And there will be no consequences.”

    Narcissism…now we’re getting somewhere.

    Jackson’s defenders insist that he did wrong because he suffers from a bipolar disorder. Forgive my skepticism, but I don’t think a clinical diagnosis is necessary to explain his misuse of campaign money – or to explain what he did in 2009, when he tried to buy Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. (Jackson offered to pay the Illinois governor $6 million for the seat. We know this because the Jackson donor who made the offer later ‘fessed up to federal authorities.)

    Garden-variety narcissism, a common disease among politicians, explains it all quite nicely. Brittany Gentile, who’s based in the department of psychology at the University of Georgia, has written a lot about that particular mindset, and this passage could easily be about Jesse Jackson Jr:

    “Narcissists…are strongly driven by reward, and relatively undeterred by the prospect of punishment. This is not to say that narcissists are not aware of the consequences, but rather that they are so acutely focused on reward that they disregard (the consequences). This can lead to disregard of the law, as these individuals place their own enjoyment above the needs of others, and do not expect to be held accountable for their actions.”

    Keep those words in mind, for the next time a politician falls from grace. But since Jackson is clearly a music fan, perhaps these Bob Dylan lyrics would be more apt:

    Ain’t nothing too discreet

    About the disease of conceit…

    Give ya delusions of grandeur

    And an evil eye

    Give you the feeling that

    You’re too good to die

    And they bury you from your head to your feet

    From the disease of conceit.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



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