America is going back to basics. When the stock market plummeted on Black Monday, September 29, the only share to rise was Campbells Soup and now, amid the funereal gloom of a rotten Christmas selling season the nation’s spirits are being rallied by the five-star political corruption scandal in Chicago centered on Governor Rod Blagojevich. Now at last the city can crawl out from under the odorless uplift of Obamian “hope” and swagger back into the fragrant, smoke-filled rooms of municipal graft, with Blagojevich’s voice booming on the FBI phone taps as he hawked Obama’s vacant senate seat for cash and ripely cursed those failing to “pay to play”.
It’s scarcely 72 hours since the FBI seized Blagojevich in his jogging clothes and already the scandal’s storyline has metastasized at pell mell speed, weaving its way through such characters as Blagojevich’s spirited wife Patti, herself worth a full episode in the upcoming tv series as the Lady MacBeth of the whole affair. Overshadowed by her dad, Dick Mell (invariably described as the powerful alderman), and her politically ambitious sister, Patti was swept off her feet by Blago’s talents as an Elvis impersonator. It was Patti who colorfully exhorted her spouse to exact a (very modest) price from the now bankrupt Chicago Tribune which was pleading for financial assistance in connection with the sale of the Cubs and the ballpark in which they play. Patti wanted a pesky editorial writer fired and I seem to remember, from the complaint, that the Trib’s men said they could do that. Why not? A state-sponsored bailout vs. a mangy pundit? No contest. Heave him over the side!
Top storyline has been the impact of Blagojevich’s indictment on Obama. At the very moment the president-elect proclaims an era of uplift and constitutional propriety, the slimy tentacles of old-style Chicago corruption snake towards his ankles. The chortles of outgoing President George Bush Jr., himself harassed by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in the Scooter Libby affair, must be rich and prolonged.
Blagojevich did Obama the enormous favor of denouncing him on the government’s tapes. “F--- him,” bellowed the governor during a call with top aides and Patti, covertly recorded by the FBI on November 10th, “For nothing? F--- him.” The governor was peeved that Obama’s representatives weren’t offering him any material incentives to nominate Obama’s political associate and Chicago powerhouse, Valerie Jarrett, for the senate seat vacated by Obama. The president elect can thank his stars for the expletive, but potential embarrassments still loom.
At Blagojevich’s elbow amid his corrupt intrigues was the real estate operator Tony Rezko, now serving time, who helped Obama in the early days, and subsequently to get his fine house in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald will undoubtedly use Rezko against Blagojevich and Obama’s name is sure to surface, as will that of his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a major Democratic player in Chicago politics, whose role in the affair was certainly significant, as one might expect since a senate seat is up for grabs. Both Obama and Emanuel campaigned for Blagojevich in his two gubernatorial campaigns. Remember also that Rahm took over Blago’s congressional seat, in which cause he probably found Blago the campaigns funds to get into the governor’s mansion. Also in the loop of rumor is Obama’s political godfather, Illinois state senate president Emil Jones, one of the those – designated only by numbers in the federal indictment – angling to be nominated as Obama’s replacement.
There is fierce infighting between two leading Democrats in the US Congress. US Senate majority leader Harry Reid wants either Blagojevich, or the Illinois legislature to appoint a Democrat to succeed Obama and avoid any erosion of the Democrats’ substantial senate majority in Congress. But Illinois’ senior senator, Dick Durbin, says correctly that only a special democratic (within Illinois’s permissive definition of that word) election of the new senator will dispel the stench of scandal. In such an election a Republican could conceivably win.
Meanwhile Jesse Jackson Jr has rushed before the microphones and cameras to proclaim that he is not under federal investigation. Jackson has been named as possibly being candidate number 5. The person marked by this chaste numeral allegedly promised Blagojevich a total of $1 million in return for the nomination. (Jarrett, who had already taken herself out of the running, was supposedly candidate number one.)
Coming into focus is the familiar and always pleasing landscape of American political corruption – a rich habitat where businessmen and state officials collaborate in the allocation of no-bid contracts, bestowing of profitable concessions, permits, waivers, zoning variances, monopolies and other political mechanisms propelling the well greased axles of state and local government.
Of course the good government crowd is aghast. “I was speechless and sickened,” wails Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “In all of the millions of indictments I’ve read over the last years, I can’t remember anything as vile as this.” Another reformer moans about “the damage to the state,. It’s going to take a long time to dig out.” Nonsense. This is exactly the sort of scandal Americans understand and appreciate. Good government is the province of states animated by the social democratic ethos of prim Nordics, like the Dakotas, or Washington in the Pacific Northwest. In the riper ethnic cauldrons of Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and of course New Jersey, corruption reigns in all its intricate and creative forms. In these states no politician is beyond the reach of an indictment, and this political certainty is the truest form of Americanism and the soundest check and balance against the arrogance of power.
If defended by a capable lawyer I don’t see any reason why Blago shouldn’t emerge from his ordeal with a verdict of Not Guilty from the 12 jurors. Don’t those freedoms we supposedly enjoy include the right to dream over the breakfast table or the cocktail shaker of extorting large sums of money from ambitious politicians and venal businessmen? It’s one thing to dream and another to actually grab the bundle of cash, stick it in the refrigerator and say, The senate seat is yours. Fitzgerald pounced too soon. And even if the quid pro quo is there on film, juries can be forgiving, as their indulgent scrutinies of FBI footage of John Z.Delorean and Mayor Marion Barry attest.
Similarly, what's wrong with Jesse Jackson Jr hitting up a bunch of Indian businessmen for $1 million and pledging to dump it in Blago’s political campaign chest, in return for services rendered in the form of the senate seat? If this is felonious conduct, shouldn’t 98 per cent of all elected politicians in this country be behind bars? The American political system is fuelled by campaign contributions, and corresponding quid pro quos. Politicians are elected to deliver services. They need money to get elected. The people who need services give it to them. That’s the way the system works. The Washington Post congratulates Obama for steering clear of the slime of Chicago politics, but what actually happened is that Obama moved to richer pastures. Not for him Tony Rezko’s dingy billfold, but the dignity of anticipatory bri. . . uh, campaign contributions from the Pritzkers, the Crown family, the big ethanol interests in the Midwest, the nuclear industry, Wall Street financiers, the biggest of big time money, now graterfully acknowledged in the form of Obama’s cabinet appointments. Obama raised more money than any presidential candidate in the history of American poltics, and here we are getting excited about Rod Blagojevich?