Wait a minute.
“I had no contact with the governor what….”
That’s the money quote from President-elect Obama in his first comment on the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat. What was that “what” about to become before Obama stopped himself in mid-sentence in front of the cameras as Al Gore and Joe Biden sat by, stonefaced? The word “whatsoever” perhaps? In which case, did the new president stop himself because he knew that to say “no contact whatsoever” was something that would be provably untrue? According to a now hastily retracted statement by aide David Axelrod, the president-elect had indeed “talked to the governor” about the vacancy.
A little history here.
John F. Kennedy, the last U.S. Senator to be elected president, “arranged with his old adversary, Massachusetts [Democratic] Governor Foster Furcolo to have an old friend, Ben Smith, a Harvard roommate and the mayor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, appointed to his seat in the United States Senate to serve the remaining two years of his uncompleted term.”
So writes the Rahm Emanuel of the Kennedy administration, Kenneth P. O’Donnell. In the days when there was neither a White House chief of staff (Emanuel’s soon-to-be job), O’Donnell, a member of JFK’s Massachusetts “Irish Mafia” effectively did the job, carrying the title of “Appointments Secretary.” In fact, as he was described in his memoirs, Kenny O’Donnell was Kennedy’s “political right hand, troubleshooter, expediter and devil’s advocate.” If anyone knew what went on behind the scenes when JFK’s vacant Senate seat was filled it was O’Donnell. Yet while O’Donnell confesses that JFK himself “arranged” Smith’s appointment as a seat-warmer for the new president’s youngest brother Teddy, he doesn’t spend much time on the details.
For that we turn to a 1972 biography, The Education of Edward Kennedy, a glowing pro-Teddy book penned by Burton Hersh. Hersh, who was given access to the Kennedy family, friends, and “three generations of outspoken Kennedy-family aides,” provides an eye-opening account of just how the newly elected president “arranged” to fill his own Senate seat.
After several unsuccessful “blandishments” following the 1960 election to Governor Furcolo, an angry president-elect had to “summon” his “cagy and recalcitrant” governor to the Kennedy Georgetown home for an “extremely frank give-and-take” about JFK’s determination to install his brother in his soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat. Kennedy so insistently used the phrase “my brother” that Furcolo initially thought the seat was to be reserved for brother Bobby — not yet announced as JFK’s attorney general. Only later, stunned, did the governor realize the seat was being held for 28-year-old Teddy, who would not reach the Constitutional age requirement of 30 until 1962.
The point here is plain.
The notion that a newly elected president who is also a sitting U.S. Senator would have no “contact” whatsoever with the governor charged with appointing his Senate successor is a fantasy. O’Donnell certainly knew what JFK was doing and later wrote about it. Hersh provided more detail.
By sheer accident, there is a current example of this kind of thing right alongside Obama himself — Vice President-elect Joe Biden. Like Obama, Biden is a sitting Senator and must yield his seat. The Governor of Delaware, indeed, has already announced “her” choice to fill the Biden vacancy: none other than Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff Ted Kaufman. Does anyone seriously believe this appointment occurred with “no contact” whatsoever between Biden and his state’s governor? In fact, the Kaufman appointment resembles nothing so much as JFK’s selection of Ben Smith. In this case, the idea is to have Kaufman warm the seat for the Delaware Attorney General — Joe Biden’s son Beau Biden. Beau Biden, according to news reports, declined the seat for now and is currently in Iraq as a captain in the state’s national guard. Yet clearly Beau Biden in 2008, like Teddy Kennedy in 1960, has only to wait for the politically right moment and the move will be on from a powerful family member to give him a Senate seat.
THE STUNNING NEWS of the Blagojevich arrest is a sudden critical moment for the Obama team. Remembering that cover-ups are usually the problems with presidents and their staffs (think Nixon and Clinton), the arrest and the startling filing by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald opens a veritable Pandora’s Box of troubling questions for the newcomers in the White House.
* What did the President-elect and his incoming chief of staff Emanuel and advisor Axelrod — fellow Chicagoans both — know and when did they know it?
* Did a member of the Obama team “drop the dime” on the Governor with the feds?
* When will the Obama team release all relevant information to the press? Information such as e-mails, phone records, appointment schedules.
* Will Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, himself under a cloud because of his judgment in the Clinton pardons of Marc Rich and Puerto Rican terrorists, recuse both himself and any incoming members of the Obama Justice Department team from the Blagojevich investigation?
* When will the president-elect publicly promise that he will not fire investigating U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald’s team, as Obama will have the ability to do the moment he is sworn in?
Last but certainly not least, what does the new administration intend to do to make sure that the creation of its much ballyhooed massive public works program does not fall into the hands of greedy state and local politicians like Blagojevich?
The absolute best way to keep any new administration from starting off under a cloud of suspicion that leads to the belief it is riddled with Chicago-style corruption is to become transparent. Right from the start.
Rahm Emanuel, of all people, should get that. The time to open up about all of this is now. Right now.
Or it will be a very long four years.