WASHINGTON -- For seven years, former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife, Sandi, the former alderman, financed their personal spending sprees with campaign cash. And on Wednesday, as they pleaded guilty to their crimes, I watched, thinking what could have been.
Instead of political careers in Congress and City Hall, the only unit of government they will be involved with for some time will be the federal judiciary and punishment systems.
The son of the famed civil rights leader -- who fought alongside his father, a two-time presidential candidate, for voting rights -- faces prison time. Sandi and Jesse Jackson now are felons, with their right to vote or hold office again forfeited, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins told each of them in their separate hearings.
I've covered Jackson Jr. since his first earnest day in Congress and his father, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, for decades.
I sat across the aisle from Rev. Jackson in court where he watched the proceedings, masking the pain I'm told he is feeling with a stoic face, fiddling at times, taking out a piece of paper and pen and writing something down. Usually garrulous on almost any topic, Rev. Jackson muzzled himself on Wednesday. He just said nothing.
I have no sympathy for the elaborate schemes the Jacksons' concocted to siphon political donations for themselves between 2005 and 2012. They apparently were not scared enough by the Rod Blagojevich corruption charges to shut down their scam even after the now imprisoned governor was arrested in December 2009 -- with Jackson drawn into that separate federal investigation.
Jackson's plea hearing was his first public appearance since he disappeared in June, surfacing at the Mayo Clinic for treatment of a bipolar depression disorder. I'm told he had a haircut Tuesday in anticipation of his court date.
On his left wrist he wore a big, beaded bracelet with what looked like leather ties. On his right wrist he wore multiple stands of bracelets, sometimes hidden by his blue sleeve.
He looked weepy most of the time, turning from the well of the court to shoot glances at his family and wife Sandi, who did not break down until she admitted to her guilt in front of Wilkins.
Sandi and Jesse Jackson had lots of relatives in court to give them support -- with their two young kids not present to see their parents confess to a federal judge, the world, their constitutients and their families that they were crooks.
Jackson looked contrite and remorseful. Right before his hearing started, he reached over from the defense table to the prosecution side to shake hands with the FBI agent who handled his case, Tim Thibault.
I often say I cover Chicago pols from announcement to indictment, and people incorrectly think I am making a joke. Two more went down Wednesday.
I was in the hallway when a teary-eyed Jackson walked outside the courtroom. He spotted me, came over and grabbed my hand and held it. Said Jackson, "Tell everybody back home, I'm sorry I let them down, OK?"