John Kass: Read your own book, Jesse

McClatchy-TribuneFebruary 21, 2013 

There's no way America can fully understand the odd expenditures of guilty former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. -- like those $7,058 stuffed elk heads -- without reading a special book.

It's called "It's About the Money!" by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and Jesse L. Jackson Jr., billed as a guide in "How to Build Wealth, Get Access to Capital, and Achieve Your Financial Dreams."

The message? Don't live beyond your means. Don't waste your money on fancy baubles. Be prudent. Pay your own way.

"Living above your means is financial sin," the Jacksons say in their book. Of course, if voters give you campaign money and you spend it hand over fist, it might also mean prison.

It's a rare book from 1999, but I have a copy and I'm looking at the cover as I write. It shows the Jacksons in happier days -- long before Junior pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to a conspiracy count for looting his campaign chest of about $750,000 on crazy junk, personal stuff and weird memorabilia.

Included in his purchases were those bizarre elk heads, $17,000 spent at tobacco stores (he smokes cigars), almost $61,000 for restaurants, nightclubs and lounges, thousands for electronic toys.

But in "It's About the Money!" the Jacksons urge a primarily African-American readership to maintain financial responsibility. Because they "have felt denied for so long where material goods are concerned, they're particularly inclined to spend money on 'flash' -- flashy clothes, expensive cars, fancy jewelry."

Clearly, Junior didn't read his own words.

"The elk heads bother me," said my colleague Old School. "What black people buy elk heads as a symbol of stature?"

"I know a lot of black people," said Old School, who has been African-American his entire life. "And not one person I know puts elk heads on the wall."

Our favorite chapter is the first, titled "Making Your Money Work for You Through Consistent Budgeting and Saving." It contains this fine line:

"Don't spend money just for pleasure; use it to build wealth and, in so doing, acquire power to manage and control your life."

And:

"Rich people tend to have certain habits that poor people would do well to emulate. For example, rich people understand that you shouldn't fritter away your money on such baubles as cars and clothes, which quickly depreciate in value."

Junior and his free-spending wife, the former Chicago alderman who pleaded guilty Wednesday on a tax charge, clearly ignored the lessons in the book.

And when the FBI got close last year, Junior developed emotional problems.

So having the feds crawling up your legs searching for the clue to stuffed elk head purchases and Best Buy spending sprees may cause emotional problems in certain politicians.

But is that an excuse? No, especially since the Jacksons -- master media magicians -- selectively leaked out reports of his mental illness in an orchestrated media plea for sympathy.

Is that a reason to mitigate prison time? No.

A reading of the plea agreement signed by Jesse Jackson Jr. on Wednesday doesn't lead you to believe he was out of control. It's full of admissions about hiding signatures, setting up straw purchases with campaign staff as fronts, and other devious methods to shield who was buying the elk heads and other stuff.

One of the places the Jacksons dropped oodles of campaign cash is Antiquities of Nevada, where the Jacksons spent thousands of dollars on celebrity autographed items, like a football signed by U.S. presidents.

"I'm a high-end autograph gallery, and certainly people furnish their man caves, their corporate offices, their law offices, their homes," owner Toby Stoffa told us after the Jacksons pleaded guilty. "It's a gallery that has beautiful things … He usually had things in mind and he was a very, very nice person," she said, correcting herself to say that he "is" a nice person. "He was always a gentleman."

Why wouldn't he be a gentleman? He was getting stuff with other people's money.

Another fine section in "It's About the Money!" is Chapter 8: "Dealing With Major Life Events."

It involves paying for college, divorce, and buying cars and stocks. But there's nothing in it about losing a job or pension, going to prison or trying to hide your elk heads when the FBI comes knocking.

There is this sentence, though, and perhaps Junior and Sandi didn't appreciate it until now:

"You need to pay your taxes, whatever your income bracket. It is your civic duty, and it is the law."

John Kass, Chicago Tribune; jskass@tribune.com.

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