Is Obama clean, dirty, or muddy?
FOR SALE: Wanna be a big shot? Get some sweet office space inna capital of duh country? Wanna make speeches wid pretty words and get yer mug on duh TV? Den I gotta deal fer youse. Big-state Democratic governor seekin to auction off U.S. Senate seat fer duh right price. Simple terms, act now. I dooz somethin fer youse, and youse dooz somethin fer me. We work us up a deal and everythin will be beeyootiful. I give youse duh seat, youse get nice job fer me and duh wife; or, youse can just wire me lots of money. We do duh deal wid a hug and a handshake, but watch duh hair...Wait - whattaya mean "no deal?" Den fug you. Fug you and duh horse youse rode in on.
I can't write it the way Mike Royko would've written it. What a shame that Chicago's most renowned gadfly columnist is no longer with us to satirically chronicle the voluble thuggery of Illinois Gov. "Hot Rod" Blagojevich, as detailed in wiretapped conversations overheard by federal investigators (I put up a link to the federal complaint in yesterday's post).
Blagojevich - a product of the Chicago machine, the son-in-law of a ward heeler - is vivid proof that a new era of clean government will not magically emerge just because Barack Obama wishes it to be so. The governor was charged yesterday with conspiracy and soliciting bribes, and I don't doubt for a moment that he is sincere in his belief that he did nothing wrong...because, after all, what he is alleged to have done is, from the viewpoint of a machine pol, merely standard practice. Indeed, it was columnist Royko who once quipped that Chicago's Latin motto (Urbs in Horto, or "City in a Garden") should be changed to Ubi Ist Mio, which means "Where's Mine?"
Which brings us to the big question: Notwithstanding the fact that Obama isn't accused of any wrongdoing in the federal complaint, is it possible for an aspiring reform politician to navigate the traditional Chicago/Illinois political culture and emerge with squeaky-clean hands? What's the accurate extent of the taint (if any)? Does Obama have dirt on his nails or mud on his palms? Has he been in bed with Hot Rod, substantively so, or is this merely a facile case of guilt-by-association?
The weight of the evidence suggests that Obama and Blagojevich have had a complicated and testy relationship - which is no surprise, because Obama, during his rise, frequently played ball with Chicago's players...even while managing to avoid being perceived as a machine flunky. The best reporting on Obama's Chicago period was conducted earlier this year by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker: "Part of Obama's political success is that he has been able to exploit his relationships with important yet ethically dubious figures in Illinois while still maintaining his independence."
And that's how a number of reform pols have traditionally operated in Illinois - because it's important to note that not all Illinois pols are like "Blago." Adlai Stevenson, the two-time Democratic presidential nominee and Illinois governor, dealt with the machine when he had to, but his '50s image was so pristine that he was widely derided as a high-minded egghead. It was the same with Paul Simon, the scholarly, bow-tied U.S. senator who sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. Nobody thought Simon was a dirty pol just because he hailed from Illinois; if anything, he was sometimes mocked as a naive good-government reformer (or, in Royko's words, a "goo-goo") who, as the saying goes, had a great face for radio.
Obama appears to have dealt with Blago via approach/avoidance. He helped strategize the governor's first statewide campaign in 2002; Rahm Emanuel told The New Yorker that he and Obama were key players, although Blago's campaign co-chair told the magazine that Emanuel had overstated Obama's role. (And now, today, we have Obama aides telling The Wall Street Journal that Obama had no role in the '02 campaign.) It's also a matter of record that Obama, as a senator in 2006, supported Blago's successful re-election bid; and that Obama did his house deal with help from Tony Rezko, the top Blago adviser and fundraiser who was later convicted on corruption charges.
But there's no evidence that Obama and Blago are tight. Quite the contrary. This year, the Obama team repeatedly stiffed the governor. He was not permitted to stump for Obama as a surrogate. He was kept off the podium at the Democratic National Convention. He was kept off the stage on election night in Grant park. And, in September, when he tried to water down a state ethics reform bill, Obama intervened against him, taking the side of the reformers. Blago, in a separate autumn incident, even took a swipe at Obama by defending Sarah Palin;; whereas "governors make decisions," said Blago, senators such as Obama "pass their bills back and forth."
Nevertheless, despite Obama's statement yesterday that he has not spoken with Blago about the vacant Senate seat (thereby contradicting strategist David Axelrod, who said on Nov. 23 that Obama had spoken with Blago), it's impossible to believe that a president-elect, and/or his top staffers, has had no contact with the home-state governor who by law is entrusted with filling the seat. Clearly somebody has dealt with Blago, as evidenced by his foul-mouthed rants about how the Obama people refuse to play ball.
The bottom line is that the Obama people will need to say more than they have said thus far...although it's likely that they'll have to say it to the federal investigators (did Obama remove his close ally Valerie Jarrett from Senate seat consideration because of Blago's slimy maneuverings?). Which means that this probe will drag out for awhile, sharing the headlines with whatever story of the day Obama seeks to promote.
And even if it turns out, definitively, that Blago was trying to shake down the Obama people, and that the Obama people were indeed clean and trying to remain so, the taint of "the Chicago way" will be tough to fully erase (fairly or not). As the old saying goes, when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.