AT HIS FIRST interview, three days into a timeout to "revive" his spirit and "reconnect" with his family, Jesse Jackson detected a whiff of conspiracy.
"A two-year-old story was made public," Jackson said, "so we can sense that there may be some motivation." After all, Jackson had planned to spend the week protesting President Bush's inauguration and John Ashcroft's nomination to be attorney general.
Without ever uttering the words "vast right-wing conspiracy" Jackson was raising the possibility of one -- and setting himself up as its victim.
Victimization, of course, is the staple of Jackson's politicking. He makes victims out of high-school thugs in Decatur, Illinois, and victims out of inept voters in Palm Beach, Florida. The strategy is always the same: shifting responsibility away from individuals and onto dark forces beyond their control.
Now he joins the army of victims he has spent decades raising -- showing by his actions and his words that he is unfit to lead it.
The problem is not that Jackson broke his wedding vows, or even that doing so in his capacity as a moral leader makes him a hypocrite. Human beings are fallible, and so any human being who holds high moral standards will fall short of them from time to time.
Better that a moral leader uphold standards that he can't always attain than accept the shameless alternative of upholding no standards whatsoever.
Nor should it matter, as some have alleged, that Jackson's contrition seems less than sincere because he only came clean after being exposed. Until his sins became public, he had no obligation to own up to them publicly. Besides, getting caught sometimes delivers a much-needed jolt to a dormant conscience.
Jackson's problem is that in his rush to resume his"public ministry" and point fingers, he's turning a blind eye to the crisis of illegitimacy that is ravaging the community he purportedly represents.
The statistic that bedevils black America is this: 68.8 percent of all African American children, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, are born outside of wedlock.
Compare that figure to the illegitimacy rates for other races: 16.7 percent for Asian Americans, 22 percent for whites, and 42.1 for Hispanics, and the cause of lingering inequality becomes very clear.
Children who grow up in homes without fathers are at much greater risk of behavioral disorders, becoming homeless, going to jail, dropping out of high school, using drugs, committing suicide, and so on.
Name the social pathology -- where there are no dads, its incidence skyrockets.
Girls who grow up without a dad in the house - like Jackson's twenty-month-old daughter -- are at greater risk of teen pregnancy, divorce, and having children out of wedlock themselves.
And that's the root of the crisis. Illegitimacy is a pattern that repeats itself over the generations. Jackson should know that. He didn't meet his own father until he was five or six years old.
It's too late for Jackson to break the cycle of illegitimacy in his own family, but it's not too late for him to prevent it for millions of others through his testimony and his witness.
He could use his personal failure as the grounds for a national call to action. He could talk about the sadness he feels knowing that he will never get to play an active role in raising his daughter, who lives with her mother in Los Angeles, while Jackson lives with his wife in Chicago.
He could draw attention to the dangers of illegitimacy, warning specifically about the risk of sex outside of marriage. He could speak about the young daughter he loves, and hold her up as an example that even "unwanted" babies are precious.
If Jackson confronted his failure forthrightly and honestly, he could do more to improve the prospects of black America than any number of his trademark protests and boycotts.
But that's not the course he's taken.
Instead, he pretends that sending a $3,000 monthly child-support check and occasionally visiting his daughter can substitute for actual parenting. In his effort to move on, he sends the message that illegitimacy is unfortunate, but no big deal -- nothing that can't be fixed with some money and three days to revive and reconnect.
It's not Jackson's weaknesses that undermine his ability to lead, it's his refusal to learn from them.
"A saint," Jackson recently told a reporter, "is a sinner who got back up again" -- and he's right.
But before Jackson petitions Rome for canonization, he still needs to get back up