Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Takedown in Illinois

What is it about Illinois politicians? Among them are the best (Obama, Lincoln, Paul Simon) and the worst. A month ago we elevated one of the best to the Presidency. Today we saw the arrest of one of the worst, the governor.

Talking Points Memo has the video of Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference:

What is it with this guy? How stupid can you possibly get? He knew he was under investigation. Josh Marshall thinks he might try an unusual defense:

I think Blagojevich's best defense is probably going to be an insanity defense based on the evidence of his idea that he was setting himself up to run for president by appointing himself to serve out Obama's senate term.
Yes, I would describe that as insane. Clinically off the deep end. Talking Points Memo, btw, has completely comprehensive coverage of this story. They are absolutely all over it. This is a great example of how blogs can do a better job on some things than even the best newspapers. This from The Daily Beast (via TPM) is priceless: a comparison of quotes from Rod Blagojevich vs. Tony Soprano. I honestly could not tell the difference.

But back to the analysis. We have known for a very long time that this kind of thing went on in Chicago. I've advised people to treat data on their computers like voting in Chicago: "Save early and save often, like vote early and vote often." Morris Udall wanted to be buried in Chicago so he could politically active when he was dead. We have suspected for a while that something nasty was going on with this particular governor. But some people have managed to come out of Chicago politics looking good, like Obama. According to the NYTimes,

Throughout his career, Mr. Obama has adroitly straddled the state’s bruising politics, forming alliances with some old-style politicians even as he pressed for ethics reform. But Mr. Obama had long been estranged from the governor
So how did Obama come out of Chicago politics with his integrity intact, while this guy set new standards for sleaze? Obviously keeping his distance from this slimeball was a big help.

I think it's a case of old-school politics being slow to die. There will always be people like this in the world. Always. But we are more aware, much more aware, of how individual politicians operate these days than we were in the past. So it's harder for them to get away with this. Which, you would think, would mean that they would stop doing it. Apparently not. Maybe Blagojevich grew up under the influence of people who DID get away with it way back when, and he just didn't understand how much times have changed. That's my best shot at an explanation. Obama, of course, is new-school politics.

It takes a healthy ego to run for office, particularly one as powerful as governor. Fortunately, the fact that there is always competition in politics usually introduces a dose of humility in a politician's psyche. If you stay in politics long enough, i.e. at least one term in a high-profile office, you are going to be wrong, and you are going to be wrong in public. And your opponents are going to be right. That's not because you, whoever you are, are stupid. It's because you are human, and you will make mistakes. So if you want to stay around, you have to be able to realize it when you are wrong, you have to admit it, and you have to be able to change. Otherwise you might end up like Ted Stevens. Or Rod Blagojevich.

Good politicians understand the necessity of balancing that healthy ego and the humility that comes from healthy competition. But it's also easy for someone to not balance those all that well, or to pretend to balance them. At which point they sometimes make headlines. Like today.

A great man from Illinois once said that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Apparently the current governor did not learn the lesson from Mr. Lincoln.

The great thing about democracy is that politicians can be held accountable. The bad thing about democracy is that occasionally holding politicians accountable is a very painful process.

There are thousands of elected officials at all levels in this country. If we are to enjoy the possibility that our politicians will be great leaders, we must be willing to accept the possibility that some of them will be crooks and slimeballs. I am thankful that there are always far more of the good ones than the truly bad ones. I am also thankful that our system allows us to take those lessons we learn from days like today and pass laws that cement these lessons into our system so that, slowly but surely, we build a better system.

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