December 10, 2008
Mere days after Rep. William Jefferson was defeated in his reelection bid as public awareness of his corruption grew, now another dirty Democrat has to face the consequences of his misdeeds. The main difference is that whereas Rep. Jefferson had enough of a guilty conscience to make him conceal his crimes, Illinois Governor Blagojevich was brazenly contemptuous of the law, almost daring to be caught. On Monday he was talking to reporters about the possibility of having his phone conversations recorded, and on the very next day Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald* revealed the contents of some of those conversations in which Blagojevich solicited paybacks from prospective U.S. Senate appointees who might fill Barack Obama's seat.
Dirty politics in the Windy City? I'm shocked -- shocked! (Not.) Chicago has a reputation for corruption going way back before the days of Mayor Daley in the 1960s, and recent governors of Illinois have been prone to engage in criminal conduct while in office. (Dan Ryan, for example.) As James Pindell wrote at Politicker.com, "Along with the position of Newark, New Jersey mayor the seat of Illinois Governor may be the most corrupt office in America." (Hey those New Jersey people should know!) But the young, smiley-faced Blagojevich is truly in a league of his own. From what we know at present, Blagojevich resented Barack Obama for not "playing ball" in his nefarious schemes. There is no reason to suspect Obama of any involvement, but this scandal is bound to raise questions about his rise to power in Chicago politics, possibly tainting his image as a "knight in shining armor." Another rising black politician from Chicago may not be off the hook, however: Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. was one of the prospective replacements for Obama that Blagojevich was soliciting. Jackson denies any quid pro quo, of course.
For complete on-the-scene coverage of all these developments, see the Chicago Tribune.
In a bizarre coincidence, the Tribune Company, which owns several newspapers and the Chicago Cubs (!), has declared bankruptcy as ad revenues fall in the current depressed economic conditions.
* Fitzgerald led the inquiry into "Plamegate" affair that eventually resulted in the conviction of Scooter Libby.
In a sense, the situation in Chicago and Washington right now is perfectly normal: Since the dawn of civilization, men who gain public power have been tempted to abuse the trust their constituents have given them, and it takes a lot of integrity to resist corruption. That's one of the main reasons we have constitutional restraints on the exercise of power, and why state-run or socialist economies invariably stagnate and fail. As I noted in January 2006, corruption is generally bipartisan in nature, but "has a disproportional effect on whichever party currently holds a majority." Whereas the Republicans seemed to get more than their share of the blame for corruption in recent years (Duke Cunningham, Jack Abramoff, etc.), now the tables have turned, as the Democrats have consolidated their majority status. In March, New York Governor Elliott Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal, in September we learned more fully about the cozy relationships between leading Democrats (including Barack Obama) and Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, which were at the root of our economic crisis. (Too bad more people didn't pay attention to that.)
But there is another lesson that most people would rather not hear: Corruption is almost universal precisely because good people who should know better allowed corrupt people to gain positions of power, and once they had attained those positions, it was too late to do anything about it. In such a situation, trying to reform politics by playing by the rules is almost futile: the deck is stacked against honest people. Just as "a stitch in time saves nine," if you don't nip corruption in the bud at the local level, it's bound to get much worse at the state and national levels.