Hope for Jesse Jackson Jr.: Bouncing Back from Depression

The Illinois congressman may be struggling with depression now, but history shows it is possible to bounce back and do great things. James Warren on the inspiring rebound of Tom Eagleton.

Jesse Jackson Jr. should pray that the past is prologue. As the Chicago congressman is treated for depression at the Mayo Clinic, he’ll be fortunate if striking similarities to the travails of a once world-famous senator persist if and when Jackson returns to work.

If they do, he could well resurrect a political career now in shambles.

The point of reference is the late U.S. senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri (1929–2007), whose place in American political history and New York Times obituary opening were effectively assured 35 years earlier by an historic campaign debacle:

“Thomas F. Eagleton, a former United States senator whose legislative accomplishments were overshadowed by his removal as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1972 after revelations of mental illness and electroshock therapy, died yesterday in Richmond Heights, Mo.,” wrote the Times.

Indeed, Eagleton will forever be associated with then-senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nominee, who picked Eagleton after being rebuffed by others and then doing insufficient due diligence. When word filtered out about Eagleton’s little-known battle with depression, he was pressured off the ticket 18 days later despite what polling showed was substantial sympathy for him among voters.

It was a handy metaphor for a disastrous campaign in which McGovern was demolished by President Richard Nixon and won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. R. Sargent Shriver replaced Eagleton as running mate, with Eagleton pilloried for not having quickly come clean to McGovern about the skeletons in his closet.

The surface similarities are striking between the plights of Eagleton and Jackson, son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, at least so far.

Both came from politically prominent families and suffered from what we now term bipolar II disorder.

Both covered up that reality and were deceptive at first. The Missouri press never seriously investigated rumors of alcoholism (untrue) and possible mental illness. Most of Eagleton’s top staff had no idea that he underwent treatment for depression on three occasions, including electroshock. His family even once fed journalists a claim that he suffered from a “gastric” problem.

Jackson waited until June 25 even to disclose he’d been on leave since June 10 with “exhaustion,” doing so minutes after the Illinois filing deadline for running against him as an independent candidate in November’s elections. His office remained coy and unresponsive for most of July, alluding to a “mood disorder” and “intensive medical treatment” at an unidentified facility, later revealed to be in Arizona.

On July 27, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., announced that Jackson was there for “extensive, inpatient evaluation for depression and gastrointestinal issues.” On Aug. 13, it revealed he was suffering from bipolar II depression.

The Mayo Clinic is the very same place Eagleton was treated more than 40 years earlier.

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Eagleton’s career up to the moment of being tapped by McGovern was far more accomplished that that of Jackson, both as a Missouri state politician (elected St. Louis’s equivalent of district attorney at 27, then elected the youngest state attorney general at age 31, later serving as lieutenant governor) and in the Senate. Jackson, 47, was elected in 1995 and remains eclipsed by the stature of his father.

But what’s largely forgotten about Eagleton is his impressive political rehabilitation after the 1972 disaster.

He went on to serve two more Senate terms and did so with great aplomb, as detailed partly in both a new book by Joshua Glasser, The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis (Yale University Press), and by Mike Kelley, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist-editor who was his press secretary during the 1972 crisis.

For example, a year after the campaign, it was Eagleton, not the stridently anti-Vietnam War McGovern, who wrote the legislation that cut off funding for U.S. bombing in Cambodia and Laos, effectively ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1980 he was the lone Democratic senator of five who were targeted by a major Republican effort, the National Conservative Political Action committee (NICPAC), to survive reelection. His overall tenure was so productive, including work on the Intelligence Committee and key roles in passing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and his esteem among colleagues so ample, that he was one of two speakers (the other being former Republican senator Howard Baker of Tennessee) picked to address the body in the Old Senator Chamber on its 1989 bicentennial, two years after his retirement.

And his retirement was itself arguably an act of principle since, as Glasser notes, he was “sickened at the amount of money required to run for Senate and by a Congress increasingly divided under Jesse Helms’ [the late North Carolina Republican’s] leadership and the GOP’s rise to prominence.”

After leaving Washington, he taught at St. Louis University School of Law and Washington University in St. Louis. He was “of counsel” to a big-shot law firm, wrote a regular column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and was largely credited with bringing pro football back to the city via the St. Louis Rams.

“His career could well be seen as inspirational to Jesse Jackson Jr.,” said Glasser, a producer-researcher at Bloomberg Television.

“I was never more proud of anybody, before or since, than I was of Eagleton persevering what he had to go through in 1972,” said Kelley, whose subsequent career included serving as editor in chief of the Daily Southtown in Chicago and the Las Vegas Sun.

“The scrutiny he was under back then was extraordinary. The press of the whole world was looking at him. He never cracked. He was as strong as guy as I ever saw in my life. He was optimistic, outgoing, upbeat, and hardworking before 1972 and after 1972.”

By coincidence, Kelley was editor of the South Side Chicago paper when Jackson ran in a special election to replace a disgraced incumbent, Mel Reynolds. His was the only white paper in Chicago to endorse Jackson, whom he found “bright, articulate, energetic, though once he got into the House he doesn’t seem to have done much.”

For sure, these have been an awful several years for Jackson.

He was tarnished badly in the two corruption trials of convicted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich for his obvious maneuvering to be picked by the governor to replace President Obama in the Senate. That subject is at the heart of an apparently ongoing House ethics investigation. Meanwhile, he was caught in an extramarital affair with a Washington waitress, while his local political stock, and hopes for running for mayor of Chicago, long ago plummeted, though he’s virtually assured of reelection if he still chooses to run in his safe Democratic district.

Jackson’s tenure is not viewed as especially effective, even by Democratic members of the Illinois congressional delegation and top Chicago Democrats. He is expected to make an announcement about his future plans soon.

Regardless of what those plans are, what might he learn from the legacy of Eagleton?

“There’s no reason that depression, once treated, should be considered a barrier to having a fine legislative career, especially since we know so much more about it than we used to,” said Kelley.

And if the curious commonalities between Eagleton and Jackson weren’t enough, an ironic bond surfaced at the Mayo Clinic last week.

Jackson was visited by Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman who himself has suffered depression and served in Congress with the Chicagoan.

Unmentioned in stories is how Kennedy’s father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was the first of several McGovern Senate colleagues to spurn offers to be the vice presidential running mate in 1972.

It was only after Kennedy, Walter Mondale (Minnesota), Abraham Ribicoff (Connecticut), and Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin) said no that the McGovern camp hurriedly and fatefully turned to Eagleton.