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(alleged) Senate Candidate No. 5 Needs A Hug

At his press conference in the Capitol today, a tense-jawed Jesse Jackson, Jr stressed that his Monday conclave with Blagojevich was the first time he had met with the disgraced guv in four years. But that's not exactly right. I guess it all depends on your definition of "met with," but a few months ago he could be found literally weeping in Blagojevich's arms.

That scene unfolded at an event nicknamed the "Hugfest," which was, at the time, only really covered by the Chicago press. (For video of the event, click here.) But even though the national media didn't give it much attention, the Hugfest marked the pinnacle of Jesse Jackson, Jr's political life. At the Democratic convention in Denver, speaking on stage at one of the Chicago delegation's daily breakfasts, Jesse - in part irritated that delegates were already getting up to snack on eggs and bagels - began spontaneously demanding that Chicago's infamously fractious, backstabbing pols start physically hugging each other, for the sake of reconciling and coming together behind their native son's run. Crying and covering his face while the gaping delegates looked on, Jesse embraced his sometime adversaries Mayor Daley and Bobby Rush; looking around, he ordered Blagojevich to hug his enemy House Speaker Mike Madigan - and then clasped Blago himself.

After 13 years in the House, 2008 was the year Jesse Jr. truly tried to leave his family name behind and fashion his own image. He wanted to be among the next generation of Obama Democrats: a reconciler, a uniter, a figure who transforms and explodes old ingrained animosities and - almost miraculously - heals the broken political atmosphere around him. Whether you think the Hugfest, ending in the embrace between Jackson and Blagojevich, was sincere or hilariously staged, it was undeniably the high point of Jesse's effort at self-creation. He was so proud of the episode he even penned an elated paean to political forgiveness on Huffington Post days afterward, relating the scene, drawing on scripture and Lincoln for parallels, earnestly quoting Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and calling for ordinary Illinoisans to hug Blago if they saw him in the street.

I couldn't help but wonder if Jesse Jr was thinking of the Hugfest at this afternoon's presser, when he veered off his prepared comments, bit his lip and stared at the podium, and then said tearfully: "This morning I got a text message from my sister. She told me, 'I'm proud of you.' I've felt that way for two and a half years about our state, even if this is a low point." This Blago thing is disappointing for Jackson in so many ways: Not only is he apparently referenced over and over in Blago's criminal indictment, but if he *is* Senate Candidate 5, then the whole world knows that his hero Obama, the man after whom he refashioned himself, evidently didn't want him appointed to the Senate seat. And his powerful wish to become known as the man who helped heal broken Chicago? Well, Jesse's much-touted Hugfest obviously failed to inspire any interior revolution towards sweetness and light on Blagojevich's part, and now Jesse, Jr. is associated, however indirect the association turns out to be, with one of the most shocking, extreme examples of typical Chicago politics in memory.

But Jesse, Jr. doesn't go down easily. I interpreted several parts of his statement as a message he was staying in the running for that Senate seat. "I hope people judge me by the content of my character," he said, tears gone, jaw re-set, before stepping away from the podium into a thick flock of fluttering reporters, all squawking, "Are you Senate Candidate 5?"

--Eve Fairbanks