What's up with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.?
In Illinois politics, few things are as they appear.
But even by that standard, the mystery surrounding U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago is bizarre. After he disappeared from public sight a couple of weeks ago, his staff issued a vague statement announcing that Jackson was suffering from "exhaustion" and had taken a medical leave at an undisclosed location.
Last week, Jackson's staff compounded the initial confusion by offering an even stranger statement that has Jackson's fellow officeholders questioning the secrecy surrounding his status.
Here's the statement:
"Congressman Jackson's medical condition is more serious than we thought and initially believed. Recently, we have been made aware that he has grappled with certain physical and emotional ailments privately for a long period of time. At present, he is undergoing further evaluation and treatment at an inpatient medical facility. According to the preliminary diagnosis from his doctors, Congressman Jackson will need to receive extended inpatient treatment as well as continuing medical treatment thereafter. We ask that you keep Congressman Jackson and his family in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult period."
Illinoisans certainly wish Rep. Jackson a full and speedy recovery from whatever is ailing him. But when a high-profile public official suffers from a serious illness, it's not only a private and personal medical issue but also a matter of public interest.
Elected officials must explain their conduct, particularly their sudden abandonment of official duties.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk understood the obligation to explain his medical problems after a recent stroke. While he has tried to maintain some form of medical privacy, Kirk and his office have been reasonably forthcoming about the stroke and his ongoing rehabilitation effort. Kirk even arranged for the release of pictures of his rehabilitation regimen as he seeks to recover from the stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body.
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin recently urged Jackson to be more forthcoming. He said that "as a public official, there comes a point when you have a responsibility to tell the public what's going on."
Without stating exactly when, Durbin said Jackson "will soon have to make a report on the physical condition he's struggling with."
The news blackout has given rise to all kinds of speculation, with some people even suggesting that Jackson's alleged role in the attempt to purchase a U.S. Senate seat might be a part of the problem.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich is currently serving a lengthy prison term for, among other things, trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old Illinois Senate seat. One of the alleged offers came from a Jackson representative. Neither Jackson nor his representative has been charged criminally in connection with the alleged plot. But the ethics committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is investigating.
Further, Jackson's alleged bagman was recently indicted by the feds in connection with a major Medicaid fraud scheme and is facing a lengthy prison sentence if convicted.
Jackson's office has denied any link between the health issue and the indictment of his longtime supporter, and there may well be no link. But when there's no information, rumors quickly fill the vacuum.
Jackson is doing neither himself nor his constituents any good with this excessive secrecy about something as important as his physical and mental capacity to serve as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The veil of secrecy must be lifted.