Jesse Jackson's admission of an extramarital affair that resulted in the birth of a daughter will do him grave harm and bring down on him contempt of a kind he has not before known. Even his harshest critics have at least respected his passion on issues. It will be a long time before he regains that respect.
Mr. Jackson - unlike Bill Clinton, who initially lied about Monica Lewinsky - has not denied the affair or the child. In admitting his wrongdoing, he acknowledged that it has taken a toll on his wife of 38 years, Jackie, and their five children.
The nation's best-known African-American spokesman said in a statement that friends and supporters will be disappointed. He asked them for forgiveness. But he didn't ask the general public for a pardon. The court of public opinion will determine whether Mr. Jackson will be accepted when he tries to return to his “public ministry” after time off with his family.
But if Mr. Jackson sincerely wants forgiveness, one couldn't tell by his actions before the story became public.
Even his greatest admirers may be stunned by his brashness when they learn that Mr. Jackson went to Washington in August, 1998, to counsel the President when Mr. Clinton admitted his affair with Ms. Lewinsky to Mrs. Clinton and their daughter. It turns out that was just about the time his out-of-wedlock daughter was conceived.
Then, that December, when Mr. Jackson returned to the White House with staff from his nonprofit civil rights group, the Rainbow Coalition, he had the audacity to take Karin Stanford, the “other woman” in his life. Ms. Stanford, who worked in the coalition's Washington office, was four months pregnant then. In a photograph taken in the Oval Office at that time, posing with Mr. Clinton are Mr. Jackson, Ms. Stanford, and other coalition members. Ms. Stanford is a former University of Georgia instructor who wrote a book about Mr. Jackson.
The internationally known figure got his start in the public eye as an aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He twice ran for president, and in recent years he's become something of a diplomat-at-large, even negotiating for the release of hostages held overseas.
As a candidate, he criticized moral hypocrisy and financial misdealings of others. A coalition spokesman said Mr. Jackson pays $3,000 a month in child support from his “personal finances” and that the coalition paid her $40,000 in “moving expenses” to relocate to Los Angeles.
Mr. Jackson isn't the first public figure, or minister, to make such a dreadful mistake. Yet the public has every right to criticize those who preach morality and practice something else. Before succumbing to temptation, it would have been wise for Mr. Jackson to first consider the cost and the causes he has championed all his life.
Until circumstances are clearer, Rainbow Coalition financial supporters will doubtless contemplate withholding support.
Meanwhile, others will suffer, including the disenfranchised voters in Florida who will lose their most powerful advocate at this critical time. Mr. Jackson's conduct will give his detractors another reason to ignore problems that need his input. His family is hurt, and his son, an impressive young congressman from Chicago, humiliated as well.
Jesse Jackson should have known better.