For 20 months Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. had been swimming beneath the surface of a distant lake, trying to escape the stink of the Blagojevich mess even though he hasn't been charged with any crime. But Senate Candidate 5 longs to become Mayoral Candidate 1, and so last Friday he finally poked his head out of the water, appearing as a guest on WLS AM's Don Wade & Roma talk show. Then he waited to see if another shoe would drop.
Tuesday one did, right on his head. The Sun-Times published new disclosures corroborating previous claims that Jackson knew of plans to raise money for Blagojevich in return for his own appointment to the Senate and posing questions about his relationship with a Washington restaurant hostess. The congressman denied these "preposterous" new allegations, except for the part about the hostess.
The timing of these revelations is unfortunate—and not just for Jackson's mayoral hopes. They also distract from an unusual alibi the congressman employed on the radio to the central accusation against him.
Jackson offered the rare Hindu Defense.
By way of background: Certain Indian-American businessmen wanted Jackson to get the Senate seat, and according to Blago's prosecutors promised to raise vast sums for the governor to make it so. That's not a problem for Jackson so long as he had no knowledge of the scheme. But during a sidebar in Blago's first trial, the prosecutors said evidence suggested he did. They pointed to a meeting at an Italian restaurant across the street from City Hall on October 28, 2008. Two businessmen were present, as was Jackson. The prosecutors contend that Jackson made clear his interest in the Senate appointment, and that the businessmen—veteran political fund-raisers, one of them a longtime friend of the Jackson family—voiced their willingness to raise a million dollars for the governor if he agreed to anoint Jackson.
On WLS Jackson acknowledged meeting with the two businessmen in the restaurant, but said that as far as he knew, it had been a completely innocent occasion. He couldn't swear it all had been aboveboard, though, because at one point in the meeting, the businessmen "began having a conversation practically in Hindu." (By which we assume the congressman meant "in Hindi.")
This explains how Jackson could have been present when the plot was discussed and yet done nothing wrong. They made him an offer he couldn't interpret.
"I did not participate in any part of that conversation, nor do I even remember hearing it," Jackson said.
What's more, because the congressman had waited so long, for undisclosed reasons, to invoke the Hindu Defense, he had suffered grievously. "I have gone through 20 months of unprecedented accusations," he told Wade and Roma, "unprecedented besmirching of my character."
It certainly conjures a rude scene: Jackson's dining companions suddenly lurching into another language, leaving him poking sheepishly at his shrimp-and-ricotta gnocchi. But there are perfectly good reasons they might have done it. Maybe they intended the Senate seat to be a birthday present for Jackson and they didn't want to spoil the surprise.
Of course, just because the congressman's account of the meeting is novel doesn't mean it's false. Let's assume it's not. In that case, Jackson's deficit wasn't in rectitude but in language skills. If he'd only understood a little Hindi, maybe none of this would have happened. Had a person of Jackson's integrity decoded that the Hindi confab was about buying him a Senate seat, he surely would have flung his napkin to the table and stalked out of the restaurant.
There's a lesson here for Chicago politicians on the importance of multilingualism.
It's unreasonable to expect pols to be fluent in every language spoken in a city as diverse as Chicago. But there are key foreign phrases that all Chicago politicians should be aware of to protect themselves from unprecedented besmirchings. When the two rascals across the table suddenly slip out of English, every congressman, alderman, or county board member should be able to consult a "Pocket Guide to Red-Alert Foreign Phrases for the Chicago Pol." Here's a start (thanks, Google Translate!):
Necesitamos a la grasa palma de su mano. (Spanish: "We need to grease his palm.")
Metas pamineti saldiklis? (Lithuanian: "Time to mention the sweetener?")
Ni renwei 20000 jiang dedao ta ne? (Chinese: "Do you think $20,000 will get it done?")
Skazhite yemu, chto eto budet nash malenki sekret. (Russian: "Tell him this will be our little secret.")
Avrei dovuto mettere un elastico intorno ad esso? (Italian: "Was I supposed to put a rubber band around it?")
Mu koperte teraz. (Polish: "Give him the envelope now.")
Isa tepa rikordara asuvidhajanaka hai. (Hindi: "This wire is uncomfortable.")