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‘Heartbroken’ Jackson worked to protect son — and family name

The Rev. Jesse Jackspauses as he he speaks medioutside federal court Wednesday Washingtafter his  sformer Illinois Rep. Jesse JacksJr.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson pauses as he he speaks to media outside federal court Wednesday in Washington after his son, former Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Jackson Jr.'s wife, Sandi, received a sentence o

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Updated: September 19, 2013 10:03AM

For years, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his namesake son had battled for the spotlight and publicly sparred over their differences, be it to defend Barack Obama or otherwise.

That was in better times.

When some of the Jackson family’s darkest days hit last week, it was the Rev. Jesse Jackson who stood before cameras to remind the public of his son’s treatment for mental health issues. The elder Jackson even heaped some of the blame onto himself.

“I was proud of Jesse Jr. as he stood before the judge and accepted full responsibility for his actions. He was remorseful. He is recovering. He has highs and lows. I have a greater appreciation for it now,” the Rev. Jackson told reporters. “He turned to us as a family and said that ‘I let you down’ and for that I apologize. I think we let him down, I may have missed the signs, and I was apologetic to him.”

Being the face of the family has always been the famed civil rights leader’s role. And for more than a year, the elder Jackson has been working behind the scenes to gain control over the message in the downfall of his son, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr..

Those close to the father say he feels compelled to protect his son – but Rev. Jackson is also seeking to minimize the tarnish to the Jackson brand. The elder Jackson has phoned numerous attorneys and public relations consultants in D.C. and Chicago – many whom he never formally hired — asking for advice on how to handle the situation both in the public eye and in the criminal justice system.

“I’m sure he knows the Jackson name has been tarnished, he’s not a fool,” said Don Rose, longtime Chicago political observer who says he’s known Jesse Jackson Jr. since he was “in utero.”

“Would he rather say: ‘My son is bipolar and therefore not totally responsible for this behavior? Or, ‘my son is a cheap crook?’” Rose said. “He’s trying to put a rational face on it. But I don’t think he’s lying.”

Those close to the family say that the episode — particularly in the days before his namesake’s sentencing — had genuinely shaken the elder Jackson. In recent weeks – away from the cameras — he’s behaved more humbly and contrite. Tears fell from his eyes as he watched his son in court on Wednesday and heard him apologize to his mom and dad.

“I think it’s probably him being a father and being protective of his son more so than the family name at this point,” said Delmarie Cobb, who has worked with both Jacksons as a media consultant. “From what I can see, he’s heartbroken by this. He’s taken this very, very hard. He’s almost in disbelief that something happened. I think he was being sincere when he said: ‘How did I miss the signs?’”

For more than a year, the Jesse Jackson Jr. narrative has revolved around mental illness and depression as possible explanations for bizarre spending sprees that ended up sidetracking his political career.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson threw cold water on that notion, saying medical information provided to her lacked clarity, and she even thanked the former congressman for not using it as an excuse for his role in embezzling $750,000 from his campaign fund. Prosecutors summed it up by saying there was “no there there” when it came to a link between his mental health and his crimes.

The younger Jackson received 2 1/2 years in prison, and his wife, former Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), was sentenced to a year in prison for filing false tax returns.

Jackson Jr. mysteriously disappeared from Congress June 10, 2012. He didn’t disclose his absence for two weeks. The reason for his disappearance evolved, ultimately leading to admission at Mayo Clinic when the family said the congressman suffered from bipolar disorder and depression.

Sources tell the Sun-Times that Jackson’s disappearance happened around the time that the first investigative subpoenas hit.

Still, those close to Jackson and those who have had dealings with him in recent years say they don’t doubt he was battling some condition.

“Around 2000 his personality began to change, I saw major changes,” said Cobb, who did some work on Jackson’s campaigns. “I believe it’s a sickness, this is just from what I know of him. There was always an obsessive compulsive behavior he had, which made him successful in what he did.”

If the Jackson political brand has taken any hit, said Rose, it’s not with the reverend. If anything, the dramatic downfall of his son may have generated some public empathy to counter his sometimes polarizing personality.

Still, there’s undoubtedly some damage done to the Jackson name, Rose said.

“If one of the other brothers were to run for office … or get into the public arena, I think people would say: ‘Uh-oh.’”

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