One thing was clear from the moment Governor Blagojevich of Illinois announced his choice of Roland Burris as Senator to fill the seat vacated by Barack Obama. He had bested the Democrat bosses at their own game. It reminds me of that joke about the eager relatives who gather to hear the reading of the multimillionaire’s will. The cash bequests go first, to his wife, his kids, then distant cousins. The dead man’s brother sits there fuming, not hearing his name called.
Finally, the lawyer arrives at the final clause. “And to my brother, Harvey, who always kept reminding me that health is much more important than wealth, I leave my treadmill and my exercise clothes.”
Blago did much the same to Reid and Pelosi and the rest of those phonies. You say integrity is better than horse trading? Fine, here’s some integrity: choke on it!
Which is not to say he is the good guy and they are the bad guys. Nah, Blago himself has fast become the poster child for Democrat corruption, and deservedly. My point is those critics, the Reids and Pelosis and Schumers, are just as dirty, except they exercise greater subtlety. They all conduct business by some degree of a pay-to-play standard and not a single one of them would sound like Lord Fauntleroy if you got to hear them wiretapped.
The Bible used an interesting strategy to diminish this temptation. The law, as explained in the Talmudic tradition, was to give a lump sum gift from the public treasury to an incoming king or high priest sufficient to make him wealthy. Afterward, he received a reasonable salary, but the theory was that having the sizeable nest egg would help him resist temptation. Today the cost of campaigning is so high even wealthy and generous candidates find they cannot count on their own funds to get them through.
Democrats are by definition better positioned to get campaign donations, or real graft, simply because they are happier funneling government money to whomever or wherever. Republicans who mostly run on tickets of cutting spending have to make a more intellectual argument to a donor: elect us and we will create a better economic climate for you to make your own money. When an economy is bad under a Republican President, that argument disappears too.
When his buddies turned on Blagojevich, the Governor fired back by lampooning their own system. He gave them the one guy who owed them nothing, who has no connections, who for better or for worse will owe nobody but Blago himself. They got honest government in a much bigger dose than they prescribed, and the taste is bitter on their tongue.
But there is also a great subplot to this story that everyone missed. This involves Dianne Feinstein sending Barack Obama a message of her own.
At first Obama was angling to discredit Blagojevich in a way that would leave Obama’s people in the position of kingmaker for that Senate seat. The combination of him being the honeymoon President and the most successful Illinois political figure would give Obama the last word on “Who’s sitting in my seat?” When Blago aced him by picking Burris, the President-elect still tried to keep a grip on that plum. He made noises backing the Senate in its determination to bar the door.
By this point some of the sharper Washington operators, most of my fellow columnists included, could see the impossibility of the Senate Democrats sticking to their position. They were being forced to push out a decent guy because he had been sent by a creepy guy, like sending Harry Truman back to Prendergast. On top of that, they were evicting the only black Senator. Burris, for his part, said the admirable thing: “I can’t help what my supporters say, but I have never made my political career be about race.”
Still, the Senators were putting up a united front. Here is where Feinstein made her move. Earlier in the week Obama had nominated Leon Panetta to head the CIA. He had done so without consulting Feinstein and her Senate Intelligence Committee. So the senior Senator from California decided to school the incoming whippersnapper. She stepped out and told a press conference she thought the law was on the side of Burris. This broke the wall of resistance and started a process to inevitably get Mr. Burris his seat.
Washington isn’t Hawaii, Mister President. Here we don’t shave our chests and surf. Our local local sport is called hardball.