Blago is the talk of Chicago.
My youngest brother was wed in Chicago Tuesday night, so I winged on up there through the good graces of Southwest Airlines. They managed to get me all the way although they landed at Midway. My gate heading out from Fort Lauderdale was B-4 and coming back it was B-10, which made me think of Obama’s two trips to Chicago, the victorious one after the election and the sheepish one this Presidents Day. He too came before and returned beaten.
I had lived in the Windy City twice for two years each, 1979-81 and 1985-87. Still I know my way around a bit less each time with the seven lean years swallowing the seven fat years, prosperity giving way to asperity, stores putting a damper on the pampering, short on shrift and long on thrift. The most fun I had there was reacquainting myself with local talk radio personalities. Listening to the news in Chicago is a different experience than elsewhere, punctuated by an obsession with the mayor’s office since the days of the elder Daley. That Daley is no longer with us, so he cannot serve actively as mayor, but he still has the opportunity to vote for his son, probably more than once.
This time around all the talk centered on former Governor Rod Blagojevich, who has pursued his office in typically backward Illinois fashion, with the actual term first and the trial period afterward. He is being tried by the very creepy Federal prosecutor, Mister Fitzgerald, who hounded Scooter Libby and Conrad Black on very dubious counts. In the case of Blago, while guilt has yet to be established, he is clearly emerging as a blackguard. If he did not do the crime, it was not for lack of trying.
He was being recorded all unknowingly during the period he was entrusted by the Constitution to find a replacement for Senator Obama. Rahm Emanuel called to indicate the President-elect had an interest in a particular individual attaining the seat. Without verbalizing a name he described Valerie Jarrett by gender and curriculum vitae. Blago was unimpressed by the vague offer of Presidential favor, he wanted some tangible favor. And so we are treated to his ruminations behind doors he thought closed about doors he hoped to open.
It is grim fare, to be sure. He pines for ambassadorships, cabinet posts, or at least a six-figure sinecure. He offers colorful descriptions of the players, including the image of our President as hen-pecked. There are plenty of expletives deleted, even a conversation with wife Patti in which she berates him for being too fond of salty language and he agrees. This is Nixon II, but without the consciousness of being taped. The missing part is the partner; all the negotiating is with himself. No one forgets being a pro long enough to offer him a quid or even a quotable quo.
He may not be guilty but he is very far from innocent. The larger question is whether he reflects Illinois politics or he is an eccentric aberration. My intuitive sense of things — speaking as a former Chicagoan — is that he represents an extreme, but the culture of corruption is real. Chicago reminded me of the Boss Tweed era in New York, where graft ruled the day but much of the city was built. The politics of efficient corruption. You pay your bribe to get the contract but then you fulfill the contractual obligations without skimping. In fact, when Jane Byrne was Mayor and the efficiency faltered, the voters escorted her to the exit and replaced her with the late Harold Washington, who knew the score. Only his cronies needed apply and the city prospered just fine. Beautiful edifices built along Lake Michigan, but with a fishy stink. After Harold died, the younger Daley took the position back, presumably a lifetime appointment with symbolic elections quadrennially.
Then again, if the only alternative is Obamaesque idealism, where bureaucrats intrude on the natural flow of life to redistribute income and reconfigure society, maybe the cash in a shoebox approach can be tolerated. The last word goes to Blago himself when someone suggested his wife could be made head of Goodwill Industries. He asked: “What is Goodwill?” That says it all right there.
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