Former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., was given 2½ years in prison for, in the words of the U.S. federal judge who sentenced him, using his campaign treasury as a "personal piggy bank."
I have met Jackson only a couple of times. But I liked him and found him, unlike more than a few of his congressional colleagues, actually interested in events and issues that did not directly involve him. I knew Jackson had a real problem when I learned that he had the Rolex gene, however.
The Rolex gene is basically, but not exclusively, a male disorder that clouds men's minds into believing that if they pay several thousand dollars for a big wrist watch, other people will recognize them as successful and important. Jackson raided his campaign fund of $43,000 to buy an especially pricey Rolex.
This gene is bipartisan. Virginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, after admitting that he had embarrassed his state, has returned all the "tangible" gifts an influence-seeking businessman had bestowed on him and his family — including $25,000 in wedding expenses to two of the governor's daughters, a $15,000 shopping trip for Mrs. McDonnell at New York's Bergdorf Goodman and, for the "Gov" himself, a $6,500 Rolex wristwatch.
It could be just a crazy coincidence that Bernie Madoff, the architect and engineer of his own $65 million Ponzi scheme, had in his townhouse, count 'em, 17 Rolexes, including the Oyster chronograph, which sold for only $63,500. This is obviously not about knowing the correct time, which is available everywhere from your cell phone to your laptop to the nearest dashboard or TV screen. Like a six-figure sports car or a trophy wife or a winter tan, the purpose of the wrist jewelry is to make some statement about your status, success or self-esteem.
Just how shallow and superficial does somebody have to be in order to be impressed — not by another person's integrity, decency or thoughtfulness, but instead by his timepiece? I always enjoyed Woody Allen's line: "I'm very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his death bed, sold me this watch."
My own wrist is a dead giveaway: a stainless steel L.L. Bean field watch, the old-fashioned one with semi-luminous numbers and a second hand, and which is now, frankly, overpriced at $129.
In fairness, two men I genuinely admire for their generosity of spirit and their compassion, both of whom I was fortunate enough to meet and to interview, the late actor-philanthropist Paul Newman and the admirable Dalai Lama, both wore Rolexes. But neither man, unlike your neighborhood private equity buccaneer or least favorite in-law, ever looked to his jewelry box for his identity.
I'll proudly put the bumper sticker on my car of the elected officeholder who will successfully champion a study by the National Institutes of Health to isolate — and to eliminate — the Rolex gene in the American male. Believe me, while it might temporarily inconvenience the Swiss economy, it would be an absolute boon to the American way of life.
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.