Like some of you, I had the following reactions reading the transcripts of Illinois’s Governor Blagojevich
1) Here in the 21st-century are we back to the 1860s of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, or the cesspool Chicago of Mayor Big Bill Thompson in the 1920s? All our moral claims about cleaning up government, all our postmodern sophisticated ethics, our vaunted notions of ‘transparency’ are reduced to a two-bit thug in the governorship of a large state like Illinois? For all our high-tech gadgetry, or our angst about situational morality, or self-help pop therapy, we revert to a foul-mouthed, profanity-spouting wretch, trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat the way a corrupt 4th-century AD emperor auctioned off proconsulships in the twilight of the Empire?
2) There are two types of felonious actors caught on tape: the first is the ambivalent Hamlet-type crook who frets about the honesty of it all, and confesses out loud that to take a bribe or offer one would be wrong, but in extremis one is forced to… Or couches his corruption in coded terms, or is remotely aware he has sold his immortal soul for money or power.
And then there is the Mafioso braggadocio of pure, unadulterated crudity: four-letter words, pomposity, no inhibition about admitting lust for money, gratuitous slurs about everything and everybody, constant threats, an entire family to dine at the table of greed. Blagojevich is something out of Dante’s Eighth Circle of Hell, a modern-day Malacoda in the 5th bolgia. One must resort either to Al Capone’s Chicago or the villains of classical literature to match these transcripts.
3) I was puzzled by Obama’s almost immediate denials that he had been in any way in contact with the Governor’s office. Why? Because for the last month it was simply understood, both by his own admission and by David Axelrod’s interviews, that his own preference for his Senate replacement was probably made known to the Governor. And fittingly so. Of course, there would be nothing wrong about Obama simply saying, “I am surprised as the next person, since I have discussed my replacement as would be natural with a governor of my own party responsible for the appointment, and I never detected anything out of the ordinary on his part.” Why instead the unbelievable denial of any communications that in turn earns the more unbelievable “misspoke” on the part of Axelrod? All that brings us back to the now familiar territory of “only a neighborhood acquaintance” and “not the (fill in the blanks) I once knew” and “I was only (fill in the appropriate adolescent age) when I was supposed to have (fill in the blanks)”. The problem with Obama is that any one “pal” (to use that now taboo word) from the past in and of itself is no problem. But each one thrown under the bus—a Rev. Wright, a Tony Rezko, a Bill Ayers, a Father Pfleger, a Governor Blagojevich, a Rashid Khalidi, et al—serve to expand the possibilities that any one of them might come clean (or come dirty) and give us a very different picture at just the time Obama needs unity to govern the country. E.g. A Rev. Wright memoir will come out with perhaps different memories of Obama’s attendance; a Tony Rezko plea bargain might reinterpret the Obama land deal; a creepy and conniving Blagojevich might have evidence of conversations that supposedly never occurred; and so on. The problem is twofold: Obama’s Chicago past was considered embedded within race and off-limits and thus never thoroughly investigated by a fawning media who did us all a disservice; and, two, the American public is not fully aware just how corrupt Illinois politics are, and thus how Obama is probably unusual by not being much more thoroughly tainted. (cf. The Blagojevich’s apparent anger that Team Obama is quite lawfully dictating a choice without ponying up any cash). I wish Obama well in governing us in times of peril, but I also wish he would just stop the stuttering in ex tempore settings, and come clean the first time.
4) On Monday the air waves were full of the Dan Rathers and Chris Matthewses lamenting the Constitution’s unfortunate rules of succession—why could not President-elect Obama save us even earlier by assuming office right now in December? Or why could not Bush resign now and allow our salvation to commence a month earlier?
Then suddenly on Tuesday morning, all such talk disappeared and instead the news was—“Of course, President-elect Obama did not… could not… would not…(fill in the blanks with the appropriate tense of the appropriate verb: know, communicate, hear, etc.) At least the Governor did us a favor by ending talk about amending the Constitution. (As a footnote: One wonders if Obama is less than successful, and, say, a Sarah Palin is elected in 2012, would a Chris Matthews ponder allowing her to assume office early in December? And, of course, it was never suggested of the once impeached, but not convicted yet ostracized Clinton in 2000 that he should step aside earlier than January 20. He did not, and should not have—and thereby on January 19 (or was it the very early morning of the 20th?) pardoned fugitive felon Marc Rich, who, via his ex-wife, had amply funded the Clinton library, furniture fund, Hillary’s exploratory campaign fund, the Democratic Party, etc. to the tune in aggregate of $1 million.
5) We don’t need this cloud over our next President. Everyone from financial speculators and Iranian mullahs to Big Three exec and Russian oligarchs are watching our POTUS for any crack in the up-to-now remarkable calm façade. I think Obama did nothing at all out of the ordinary, so he should frankly admit he talked with members of the Governor’s staff the last few years, and then say that one in politics regrettably gets exposed to such people—and quit the implausible denials and get on with the transition.