Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has become the poster child for the rampant corruption endemic in Chicago politics — commonly known as “the Chicago way.” Yet Blagogate is about more than a brazen attempt by the Democratic governor to leverage a U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign contributions or a lucrative job for him and his wife. It is about a political culture in which bribery, influence-peddling, cronyism, abuse of power and misuse of public funds are widely practiced.
President-elect Barack Obama is a product of this venal swamp. His claims that he knew nothing of Mr. Blagojevich’s “pay-to-play” scheme are not credible. Mr. Obama was deeply immersed in Illinois’ sleazy politics. He was a junior U.S. senator. He was a member of the state legislature, as well as a community activist in Chicago for years. He publicly supported Mr. Blagojevich in his gubernatorial campaigns. It was an open secret in Chicago that Mr. Blagojevich was as dirty as they come: a crass opportunist who would say - and do - anything to get ahead.
Moreover, Mr. Obama’s incoming White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has long, close ties to Mr. Blagojevich. In 2002, Mr. Emanuel succeeded in winning Mr. Blagojevich’s U.S. House seat representing Chicago’s north side following his decision to pursue the governorship. While in Congress, Mr. Emanuel worked closely with the governor on several issues, such as re-importing prescription drugs from Canada and raising Illinois’ minimum wage.
The Chicago press reports that federal authorities have wire-tapped 21 conversations Mr. Emanuel had with Mr. Blagojevich’s team about who would fill Mr. Obama’s vacant Senate seat. Mr. Emanuel presented Mr. Blagojevich’s aides with a “list” of prospective candidates favored by Mr. Obama. The president-elect insists there was no quid pro quo; no campaign cash or cushy ambassadorship was promised in return for Mr. Blagojevich’s appointment of a choice Obama nominee.
This is probably true. And the liberal mainstream media has been desperately parroting that line for days. Having carried Mr. Obama into the White House, they will not allow this unfolding scandal to cripple his administration before it has even taken office. They are too heavily invested in an Obama presidency to see it fail - especially, so early on.
The central question, however, remains: What did Mr. Emanuel know and when did he know it? This is a question that conservative talk radio host Michael Savage asked when the scandal first broke, and he was (as usual) ahead of the media curve. The answer will determine whether Blagogate remains a Chicago corruption story or morphs into a cancer that slowly devours the Obama administration.
Mr. Blagojevich was shopping around a U.S. Senate seat. He was engaged in a criminal conspiracy - a conspiracy that was clearly known to numerous Illinois politicians, as the governor and his aides told prospective parties of the asking price. If it’s shown that Mr. Emanuel knew of Mr. Blagojevich’s activities - and how couldn’t he have? - and failed to report it to U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, then he did more than behave unethically: He behaved criminally.
The U.S. penal code (Title 18, Section 4) clearly states it is a crime to be aware of a violation of federal law and not report it to a judge, prosecutor or law-enforcement authorities. Mr. Emanuel can - and should - be charged with misprision of a felony. If that happens, the Obama administration will be engulfed in a major scandal - one that will shatter its hollow, artificial image of reform and honest government.
In fact, Mr. Obama’s selection of Mr. Emanuel reveals the profound dishonesty at the core of his presidency. Mr. Obama promised to be a change agent and a “post-partisan” president. Mr. Emanuel, however, is the very opposite: He is a Clintonite retread and hyperaggressive street-fighter, who believes that politics is about crushing one’s opponents.
He refers to himself as a “Lombardi Democrat,” after the Green Bay Packers football coach who said “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Mr. Emanuel served as communications director under President Bill Clinton. Along with Sidney Blumenthal and John Podesta, he formed an integral part of the “Chicago gang.” They were Mr. Clinton’s key henchmen, who helped cover up and defend the most scandal-ridden, corrupt administration in recent memory. If Mr. Obama is truly serious about ending Washington’s partisan climate, then Mr. Emanuel would not be his chief of staff. Instead of a conciliator and a bridge-builder, Mr. Obama has opted for an enforcer.
The “Chicago way” is following Mr. Obama just as the “Arkansas mafia” followed Mr. Clinton to the White House. The president-elect is presiding over an updated version of the Clinton administration. It is back to the future. From Mr. Emanuel to Hillary Clinton, Bill Richardson to Eric Holder - the incoming Democratic Cabinet is rife with former Clinton loyalists. Mr. Obama has forged an unholy alliance with the Clintons.
Whether it is Arkansas gangsterism or Chicago kleptocracy, corruption poses a grave threat to a presidency. Mr. Clinton learned this the hard way; Mr. Obama is painfully learning it now.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times.