CHICAGO — In the cluttered office where he's met with some of the nation's top politicians and preachers, penned rousing speeches and planned civil rights marches, the Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks so softly — and with so little enunciation — that one strains at times to hear him.
At 71, he still keeps a hectic schedule and speaks extemporaneously on issues from voting rights to prisoners in Gambia. But the head of one of America's most prominent families struggles when addressing one thing: the son and political heir who abandoned his congressional seat last week because of mental health problems and two federal investigations.
Sitting in his office — among photographs of mentor Martin Luther King — the elder Jackson's body tenses, he sighs and his eyes drift off.
"My heart burns," he said. "As I always say to my children, champions have to play with pain. You can't just walk off the field because you're hurt."
Over the last 40-plus years, Mr. Jackson has played many roles — barrier-breaking presidential candidate, international hostage negotiator and master orator. There was a time when his presence alone inspired swift action and attracted throngs of reporters. Now it's different.
These days, Mr. Jackson is more likely to seek out media attention rather than waiting for journalists to come to him. If his voice in national affairs is muted, it's also because reporters don't listen as closely as they used to.
"He's not the magnet for the press he once was," said David Bositis of the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who has known Mr. Jackson for years.
Associates and historians say it's partly natural: Mr. Jackson is older, and the dynamics of civil rights activism have changed. His role as an inspiration for blacks has been altered by the rise of President Obama and a new generation. But those who know him also attribute Mr. Jackson's lower-key role to the three years of troubles surrounding his eldest son, who resigned from his seat in Congress last month citing health issues. And some are concerned that the son's woes could hurt the family's image and legacy.
For the elder Mr. Jackson, much of 2012 was spent working on the issue of challenges to voter rights across the country. He also visited a Wisconsin Sikh temple after a fatal shooting. And he returned several times to join the workers' protests in northern Illinois.
Mr. Jackson acknowledges the changes in his tactics, press coverage and the wider world.
"The whole landscape has changed," he said. "The rules are different today."