President-elect Barack Obama‘s initial reluctance to issue a more forceful condemnation of the acts alleged in federal charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich should come as no surprise. Assuredly he knew someone from his senior staff circle (possibly Mr. Obama himself) had been in touch with the governor about his vacant Senate seat - he just didn’t know to what extent.
That someone from his staff would be in touch with the governor is not suspect; why his team would be so coy about it, is. And if his chief-of-staff-to-be, Rahm Emanuel, sent the governor a list of “acceptable” candidates - as has been reported - then that too should raise the level of concern.
What shouldn’t be shocking to Americans is that these kinds of back-room political deals take place everyday. What should be shocking is that they go virtually unchallenged, brushed off as routine, part of the status quo.
Think about it, yes Blago’s alleged acts were stupid, arrogant and potentially criminal. Yet, the reason most are appalled is because he actually got caught - not at the alleged act of selling a Senate seat or threatening a newspaper. It is an observation not lost on Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who told NBC’s David Gregory, “You got to know how to play the game … Governor Blagojevich was tacky in playing the game. That’s what people are upset about. They’re embarrassed that this man had the nerve to get caught on the wiretap.” And therein lies the problem. The liberties taken by Blago wouldn’t even be suggested or offered if it weren’t commonplace. Some play the game, some don’t. But it is common knowledge that the game is routine. Mr. Gregory added, “This is part of entrenched politics here in Washington.”
By all accounts this does not excuse the behavior, but it sheds light on a bigger problem in what has become too much of the norm. Until there is genuine moral outrage that goes beyond the knee-jerk reaction of shock and awe - it will continue. Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald noted that Blago’s actions would “make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” Maybe we ought to dig him up for a refresher course. Ironically (or maybe not), Mr. Obama’s presidential reference of choice is one President Lincoln. And Lincoln once said: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”
What is unfolding in Illinois reminds me of a similar situation (which was never prosecuted) that I covered as a television reporter across the lake from Illinois in neighboring Detroit. Even before the now convicted and notorious Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick went to jail, I uncovered and exclusively reported on a similar pay-to-play scheme between the mayor and then-gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm. A scheme he was actually dumb enough to put on paper. The illustrious mayor told the wannabe governor (in a memo) that he would work to turn out 275,000 voters in Detroit if Ms. Granholm would agree that 20 percent of her appointees would be black, that all new state office buildings would be in Detroit and Detroiters would be named to state offices. Sounds a bit like extortion doesn’t it? Mr. Kilpatrick then confirmed to me on camera, once cornered, that he had written the memo I had in my hand and asked how I happened upon what was meant to be confidential.
When other news organizations picked up the story, the mayor attempted to backtrack - claiming he had not written the memo - until I replayed what he said in a series of reports. He subsequently stopped talking about it and banished me and my camera people to reporter’s purgatory. Many argue that the ensuing coverage nearly cost Ms. Granholm the election, having closed her double-digit lead over her opponent to a mere 4-percentage point win. I knew then it was the beginning of Mr. Kilpatrick’s end.
Those in Illinois politics, similarly, have seen this coming for some time. It was no secret that Blago was under investigation. Whispers persisted about his alleged corruption and some politicians found solace in their distance from him. Yet, it is this kind of hindsight (or insight) that could have served Mr. Obama’s team well upon learning that Blaggo was attempting to sell Mr. Obama’s Senate seat. Instead of blowing the whistle, it appears, they simply bowed out of the game. Content on silence and, it seems, to let “politics as usual” run its course.
While Team Obama may have “done nothing wrong” in the criminal sense, it failed in doing what was right in a moral one. This is not the first, or last time, a politician is caught up in this kind of pay-for-play scheme, yet why can’t it be the beginning of a “change” in the way politicians do business?
Tara Wall is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Times. twall@washington times.com.