The erosion of standards in modern times extends in all directions, with Americans now witnessing one more distressing cultural indicator: a sharp decline in the cleverness of the country’s crooks. Not even corruption is performed competently anymore.
Pols in Louisiana and Chicago once prided themselves on the effortlessness of their graft. The foul-mouthed frenzy of Governor Rod Blagojevich would have left them deeply disappointed. That’s no way to abuse your office. And they certainly wouldn’t be so gauche as to hoard $90,000, à la ousted New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson, in their freezer.
Earl Long, Huey Long’s brother, issued an authoritative dictum on minimalist communication for crooked pols that the Blagojevichs and Jeffersons were too sloppy to study: “Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.”
Blagojevich’s idea of a suave aside was to inform an aide that his list of demands to bidders for the sale of Obama’s Senate seat “can’t be in writing.” Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald said even his most cynical investigators were “shocked” by Blagojevich, though he didn’t spell out the source of their shock: whether it was the extent of Blagojevich’s corruption, the depth of his stupidity, or both.
Fitzgerald’s wiretappers had a fairly easy assignment. They were dealing with a pol, after all, who had made news in 2006 by failing to notice that The Daily Show was interviewing him for a story. “It was going to be an interview on contraceptives…that’s all I knew about it,” Blagojevich explained to the press afterwards. “I had no idea I was going to be asked if I was ‘the gay governor.'”
What Democratic pols say about each other is always interesting to hear, and Fitzgerald’s wiretaps contribute helpfully to the genre. Blagojevich now joins Jesse Jackson in his high, off-camera esteem for Obama, having called him an expletive that Bill Clinton once used to describe Michael Dukakis.
Obama lucks out with that one, even though he is on record having praised Blagojevich for “delivering” for Illinois. From this cradle of corruption Obama comes and many of those around him differ from Blagojevich not by kind but by degree. They just weren’t stupid enough to get caught, doing covertly what Blagojevich has done openly.
According to press accounts, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once called Blagojevich “cuckoo” during a dispute. Blagojevich’s rejoinder: “I don’t think I’m cuckoo.” But perhaps one public benefit from Blagojevich’s cuckoo corruption is that liberal special-interest politics is exposed once again for the utter sham that it is.
The indictment has him saying at one point as he scrambles for bids that he wants an arrangement that delivers “good stuff for the people of Illinois” and would be “good for me.” Amongst Democratic pols, the two are usually inseparable.
Blagojevich had all the usual PC demagoguery down, which is the last refuge of corrupt pols, referring to himself as Illinois’ first black governor. That he is fishing around (recorded on the wiretaps) for a lucrative job at the “Red Cross” and a six-figure salary for his wife at a “non-profit” is a nice touch.
Liberal special-interest pols are dedicated to “public service.” But according to the wiretaps, Blagojevich hated public service. Liberal pols are dedicated to press freedom; according to the wiretaps, Blagojevich wanted editors at the Chicago Tribune fired. Liberal pols itch to solve the problem of poverty; on the wiretaps Blagojevich is only interested in solving his own.
The party has descended from the Long brothers and the Daleys to the Blagojevichs, Jeffersons, and Rangels — a change not in the quality of corruption but in the confidence of its execution.