Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On Blagojevich’s One Smart Move, Royko & Will on Chicago Politics, & Is Illinois Ready for Reform, Yet?

A great deal has already been said and written about the antics of Illinois Democrat Governor Rod Blagojevich, much of it laced with surprise and outrage. The behavior is outrageous indeed, but hardly surprising. Corruption is to Chicago and Illinois politics as mosquitoes are to summer.

From Chicago’s northwest side, Blagojevich’s major accomplishment in life has been to marry the daughter of the powerful Chicago alderman and Democratic ward committeeman Dick Mell. Father-in-law Mell was Blagojevich’s guide and patron, shepherding him into positions first as a state representative, then as a congressman, and then finally as governor. His first run for his current job, in 2002, was against popular state Attorney General Jim Ryan, who was unfairly associated in the minds of inattentive voters with the brewing scandal surrounding unpopular then-Governor George Ryan, who was no relation.

It is an anomaly that the last high-profile Illinois politician before this one to be charged with corruption was a Republican, for this game in Chicago and in Illinois has been primarily an intramural one among Democrats. In fact, speaking only of governors, four now of the last eight have been charged with corruption – three Democrats and the one Republican.

Blagojevich is a player in the Chicago league of hardball politics. George Will, who grew up in downstate Champaign, wrote in Newsweek in 1983: “Welcome to Chicago, where even the feast of St. Valentine is associated with bloodshed. Chicago politics, like Chicago baseball, is not for the squeamish.”

Legendary columnist Mike Royko, consummate Chicago guy and veteran observer of the political scene, wrote this in the Chicago Tribune in 1989:

Every time Chicago politicians go on trial for bribe-taking, I marvel at how stupid they are. Not because they were greedy and dishonest. Just as fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, they gotta grab whatever goes by. Their stupidity is in getting caught. And that’s because they don’t know the difference between dumb graft and smart graft. This distinction separates the politicians who chow down in a prison hall from those who take two-hour lunches at Eli’s while favor-seekers pause at their table and kiss their rings. Dumb graft is… when you babble your gratitude for a wad of cash from someone who has a stereo system hidden in his underwear. Smart graft is money that flows to you because you are a political heavyweight [think here of another politician from Chicago’s north side, Hillary Clinton].
In many other cities and states [corrupt politicians] would be booted out of office. But in Chicago we have a more tolerant attitude. If they don’t get indicted, they’re okay.
So outrage, yes, surprise, no. This story is an old one, and the plot line hasn’t changed, yet. As legendary Chicago Democrat 43rd ward alderman and saloonkeeper Paddy Bauler said in 1955 after the young Richard J. Daley defeated the sitting “reform” mayor who had been cleaning up a scandal-ridden city hall, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet.” Still not yet.

Good coverage from a local perspective from Dennis Byrne at The Barbershop (here), Anne Leary at Backyard Conservative (here), Illinois Review (here), John Ruberry at Marathon Pundit (here), and from Bill Baar on the West Side (here). UPDATE: Feds seize Blagojevich's eBay account -- Iowahawk has the story (here).

John Michael Greco