Aphrodisiac of power

Jesse Jackson joins the club of powerful men whose private transgressions are inevitably exposed -- but at least he handles it with a little class.

Published January 19, 2001 8:31PM (EST)

Whatever else there is to say about the Rev. Jesse Jackson's admission that he fathered a child with a Rainbow Coalition staffer, Jackson set a new standard for the way public figures should admit to, and apologize for, their private transgressions when they're finally and predictably exposed.

"This is no time for evasions, denials or alibis," Jackson intoned. "I fully accept responsibility and I am truly sorry for my actions."

President Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Linda Chavez, among others, could take a page from Jackson's honest and direct statement, in which he neither blamed his enemies nor tried to downplay his bad behavior. (Mimicking Chavez, he might have brought a parade of single mothers he's helped over the years, or female Rainbow Coalition members he hasn't hit on.) Jackson took responsibility squarely on his shoulders, with a classy apology that acknowledged the pain he'd caused his family and the damage he'd done to the causes he believes in, as well as the love he feels for his baby daughter. He was also right to announce that he is taking a self-imposed leave from public life to "reconnect" with his family.

Of course Jackson's defenders will point suspiciously to the timing of the National Enquirer's 2-year old "news" story. Rumors that Jackson fathered a daughter with Karin Stanford, who ran his Washington office, have raged through Washington political circles for months; why is it exploding in the headlines now? Jackson is fresh off one of his biggest public triumphs, his crusade to publicize the story of voter disenfranchisement in the Florida election debacle, a cause he was about to take onto the streets of Washington on Inauguration Day, and the civil rights leader promised to be a thorn in the side of the unelected Bush administration for the next four years.

The fact that the Enquirer story debuted on the Drudge Report Wednesday, the same place the Monica Lewinsky scandal burst forth three years ago this week, only reinforces those suspicions. And it seems no accident that the African-American man people were talking about all day Thursday was Jackson and not Ronnie White, the Missouri jurist "Borked" by John Ashcroft who was testifying against the attorney general-designate while the cameras were trained on Jackson.

The National Enquirer denies that politics played a role in the timing of its Jackson exposé. But even if it did, Jackson has no one to blame but himself. The civil rights leader's womanizing has been legendary for years; he was a ticking sex scandal ready to explode. And it's tragic: Once again, the nation loses a public leader because of his private misbehavior. Jackson's leadership will be missed by those who were rallying to the cause of voters' rights.

Many liberals will say that the exposing of Jackson's private transgressions is an outrage, that they should have no bearing on his fitness to be a civil rights leader. But I think it's not that simple. I believe strongly that public figures deserve private lives. And, as President Clinton reminded his interrogators during his videotaped Monica Lewinsky testimony, the human heart is complicated. What's remarkable, and disturbing, about the sex scandals that have hobbled so many public men in recent years -- Jackson, Clinton, Gingrich, Gary Hart -- is the way each insisted on making his private affairs public.

What is this penchant among powerful men for romances that will inevitably be discovered? From Hart challenging the media to follow him as he romanced Donna Rice, to Clinton preying on a big-mouthed intern he confessed ruefully he "knew" would eventually talk, to Jackson dallying with an activist who wrote the unfortunately titled book "Beyond the Boundaries: Reverend Jesse Jackson in International Affairs" (apparently she became an expert on his boundaries and his affairs), then putting her in charge of his Washington office; clearly we're enduring an epidemic of sexual recklessness in high places.

Let's acknowledge that many men cheat on their wives, and maybe powerful men do it more frequently, because they have more options. As homely Henry Kissinger gratefully discovered, power is an aphrodisiac, and it extends a man's sexual attractiveness past his prime, encouraging women to overlook the wrinkles and jowls that usually disqualify, say, plumbers from dating nubile interns.

But the fact is, most people who betray their spouses manage to keep it a secret, because they want it that way. Not the Jesse Jacksons of the world. It's inescapable to think that these powerful men who conduct their private lives with public recklessness somehow want to get caught.

I'm not smart enough to know why, exactly. Some may be so numbed by their days of manic activity that they lose touch with their inner lives, are deadened erotically and can only feel lust when it's mixed with the danger of discovery. Others, like Clinton and perhaps Jackson, may have a self-destructive streak borne of class insecurity and early family dysfunction. Jackson was himself born out of wedlock, as he noted in his personal public statement on his affair. Or perhaps these men have led their lives in public for so long, they no longer have private selves, so there's no barrier in their lives between these two worlds.

But it's hard to look away from the arrogance, the selfishness and the destructiveness of their actions, whatever the cause. Imagine Rainbow/PUSH, much like the inner circle of the Clinton White House during the Lewinsky scandal and its aftermath, disabled by the ugly secret in its midst. But maybe that's part of the thrill: What better measure of your power, after all, than dallying with a staff member, then forcing your subordinates to look away from your misdeeds, to cover for them and become complicit in your mess?

And in the end, it's hard to ignore the fact that each of these politicians' affairs has ultimately resulted in the public humiliation of his wife. Like Hillary Clinton, Jacqueline Jackson has reportedly had a tough time looking away from her husband's womanizing, but until now whatever suffering she's endured has been private. Now her marital woes are everybody's business, and she's done nothing to deserve it.

I don't think it's only Republicans who are horrified by the photo of Jackson and the pregnant Stanford in the White House with President Clinton, at the height of the impeachment scandal. That was a great big "Fuck you" to everyone's sense of decency, but it was particularly and unforgivably disrespectful to Jackson's wife.

So I acknowledge that the timing of the Jackson revelation is suspicious, and that it sets back the causes he's fought for at a time he's desperately needed. But I don't blame any vast right-wing conspiracy, I point my finger at Jackson himself. The good news is, so does he. I hope his sabbatical from public life is more than just a public relations ploy, that he truly uses the time to heal his private wounds, make it up to his family and understand his own behavior. Maybe then he can return to his public ministry a chastened and deeper man.

By Joan Walsh

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