Governor scandal hits Obama team
Could the scandal swamping the governor of Illinois hurt the US president-elect?
Last Modified: 11 Dec 2008 01:25 GMT

Blagojevich appeared in a Chicago court on Tuesday charges with several offenses [EPA]

"They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys."

Chicago Poems, Carl Sandburg, 1916

Life is full of mysteries, and one of the greatest of them all is this: Why do we keep electing politicians who combine arrogance, cluelessness and sometimes mind-boggling venality to high office?

The latest in the annals of "how are the mighty fallen" is the sleekly coiffed Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois.

Elected on a platform of reform in 2002 he is now under arrest and, if the allegations against him are proven true, apparently destined to become the fourth Illinois chief executive to head off to prison since the 1970s.

What is it about Illinois? Ever since the so-called Roaring Twenties, when gangster Al Capone bootlegged and machine-gunned his way through Chicago, bribing every politician and cop in sight, corruption has been as much a Windy City tradition as celery salt on hot dogs.

But Blagojevich's alleged transgressions could ascend to a whole new order of audacious sleaze.

As Patrick Fitzgerald, the federal prosecutor in the case said in a press conference on Tuesday: "Governor Blagojevich has been arrested in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree."

Fitzgerald, you will recall, is the lantern-jawed and super-serious prosecutor who indicted Vice-President Dick Cheney's right hand man Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury in a case involving the leaking of a CIA agent's identity several years ago.

He is a relentless, take no prisoners prosecutor in the mold of the old, US Prohibition era "G-man" Eliot Ness, who put Capone behind bars.

'Big money' claims

The most appalling charge Fitzgerald levelled: That Blagojevich allegedly put the senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama, the US president-elect, "up for auction" to the highest bidder.

Blagojevich, allegedly, made it crystal-clear he wanted to make big money in return for appointing the new senator.

He reportedly schemed about how best to profit from his power - allegedly mulling if maybe he could parlay it into a cabinet post, or a cushy ambassadorship. Or perhaps he could set himself up in the corporate world, with a few lucrative board of directors' memberships, he is alleged to have said.

Or maybe, if he did not get the right price, he would just place the crown on his own head, a la Napoleon, and grab that senate seat for himself, it is claimed.

The FBI tapes reportedly show Blagojevich on November 5 - the day after the US presidential election - gloating: "I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I'm not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there."

Blagojevich also allegedly tried to strong-arm the director of a children's hospital, and to get some newspaper editorial writers fired in return for favourable treatment of a media company in financial distress, among other supposed schemes.

On the trail

"You got to be careful how you express [that] and assume everybody's listening, the whole world is listening - you hear me?"

Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, quoted according to FBI affidavit

But my big issue with "B-Rod", as he has been termed, is not his alleged criminal behaviour. It is his apparent stupidity.

The man has been under investigation for years. Federal agents started sniffing around the governor's mansion in 2003, as the aroma of alleged corruption began to waft out.

Now, as every Mafia leader, or capo, or consigliore knows, one thing the FBI does when it is on your trail is to tap, bug, and intercept all your phone calls and conversations with associates.

That is why mobsters do business in saunas or in doctors' offices and talk in a convoluted and indirect "elision-speak" worthy of a Jane Austen drawing-room.

At one point, the governor even reportedly cautioned his associates, saying: "You got to be careful how you express that and assume everybody's listening, the whole world is listening. You hear me?"

But Blago seems to have just kept yapping away, on the phone, in his office - wherever.

And the cops were listening. Those obscenity-laced conversations make depressing reading.

I won't bother quoting them here, since you can find them all over the web.

But I will say that allegedly discussing a criminal conspiracy on an unsecured phone is about as intelligent as trying to rob a bank on Fifth Avenue in New York in broad daylight on St Patrick's Day while the New York police bagpipe contingent parades past. 

It is almost as stupid as using your personal credit card to pay for swanky hotel room visits from high-class prostitutes - as former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer reportedly did. Maybe Illinois is not the dumbest state, after all.

A media 'distraction'

Obama, right, has tried to distance himself
from the disgraced governor [Reuters]
The scandal has cast a cloud over Obama's triumphal march to inauguration day in January.

Not that Obama had any dealings with Blagojevich over the senate seat.

The two men are not close politically or personally - in fact, Blagojevich reportedly referred to Obama by a very inappropriate word in the already famous tapes. I'll bet Obama was never so happy to be publicly cursed.

But having the media ask: "What did he know and when did he know it?" before even taking office is not an ideal way to spend the next couple of weeks, as Ron Brownstein of the National Journal pointed out.

The media attention is negative, distracting from Obama's carefully orchestrated pre-presidency and reminding voters that he did, after all, get his start in the fetid milieu of Chicago politics.

Obama's tepid "it would be inappropriate to comment" response to the Blago bombshell was inadequate.

As the Republican Party chairman quite rightly pointed out, it was "vague and carefully parsed".

It smacked too much of the old, no-accountability politics of the past. Obama needs to do more, and to make absolutely clear that no scandal-tinged figures in the Democratic Party will be permitted to hold powerful posts.

Filling the position

Now a group of Illinois politicians, including Obama, are calling on the governor to resign, or for the state legislature to pass legislation snatching the senator-selection power away from him and call a special election instead.

There is one problem with the legislative option; any bill changing the power to fill senate vacancies would have to be signed by the governor.

That would be Blagojevich.

But who would want that senate seat now, under these circumstances?

Several figures mentioned as possible appointees have swiftly backpedalled, indicating they are no longer interested.

Now, whoever gets this job is going to have to be clean as a whistle, above reproach, more pure than the Mary's Little Lamb of childhood stories.

Who could that be? Somebody like federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, perhaps?

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