- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Change isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

Consider that nameless regiment of a bygone era, and the company sergeant who was told to make sure the men practiced basic hygiene. “All right, men,” he said firmly at the first formation, “the colonel says we’re going to practice cleanliness, and that starts with a change of underwear every week, whether you need it or not. O’Malley, you change with Sanchez; Hodges, you change with Cohen … .”

This, as we now learn, was the formula Barack Obama had in mind when he promised “change we can believe in.” He delivered change with the selection of his Cabinet, studded with Bill Clinton’s mouldy scraps and fragrant leftovers, revealing that contrary to widespread impression, some of these worthies were not still dead. The underwear? We definitely won’t go there. But Mr. Obama, eager to get where it is he may be going, is surely the first president to arrive with fresh scandal. New presidents usually get to unpack their suitcases and learn the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night before they have to explain why what the rest of us see is not really there.

Mr. Obama is resolute. He refuses to answer any questions about the “internal review” he ordered into whether, how and in what way Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the seat in the U.S. Senate that Mr. Obama vacated Nov. 16, saying the U.S. attorney asked him to withhold the report so as not to jeopardize the case against Mr. Blagojevich. The U.S. attorney in Chicago, Patrick Fitzgerald, has fallen silent now, but not before he said enough to put a little poison in any jury pool he might call on later for assistance in putting Mr. Blago away. He makes “no allegations” that Mr. Obama did anything wrong.

That’s what he says now and that may be the last word, but it defies the past to think that anyone, even a messiah, could go for walks in the Chicago sewers and emerge with only stink on his clothes and nothing on his shoes. But we must all hope he did.

Nobody wants to see the new president walking around Washington - to say nothing of the European and Middle Eastern precincts added to the American electorate - under a permanent cloud. But already the Chicago scandal (Chicagogate? Governorgate? Senatorgate?) is beginning to give off the faint aroma of scandals past.

The president-elect wants to gather “all the facts about any staff contacts that may have taken place between the transition office and the governor’s office,” Mr. Obama said, “and we’ll have those in the next few days.” (Hmmmmm. The sound of distant bells.) “But what I’m absolutely certain about is that our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat. That’s what I’m absolutely certain of.”

That sounds pretty definitely, absolutely, positively certain, but it raises the question of why, if he’s absolutely certain, the investigation is important. Verdict first, evidence later (if anyone insists).

Rahm Emanuel’s determined silence is so loud it’s difficult to hear what his boss is saying. His attempt to hide from reporters at his daughter’s birthday party hardly comports with his carefully nurtured reputation of a loud, profane and abusive tough guy. He’s been around Washington long enough, even if his new boss has not, to know that it’s nearly always the cover-up and not the crime that brings down the tough guys.

Selling a Senate seat, even if we must call it that, is hardly new, depending on the definition of “selling.” Gov. Blago, who certainly seems to be the cheap hustler everybody thinks he is, is not the first governor to exact a quid pro quo for a favor.

A seat in the United States Senate would bring a nice sum on eBay , and that wouldn’t be nice. But how does exacting a quid pro quo for a Senate seat, except in degree and decorum, differ from, for a random example, a defeated presidential candidate offering to endorse his (or her) rival in return for help in retiring campaign debt or even appointment to the rival’s Cabinet. Maybe even secretary of state? Mr. Obama is legitimately entitled, after all, to take a close interest in who gets to follow him to Washington.

But so far, so good. The whiff of scandal, the evidence that Mr. Obama may be human after all, will serve him in good stead if he tries to walk across the Reflecting Pool, even to wipe that Chicago stuff off his shoes, and gets his feet wet to the knees. The governor goes to jail, scandal appears to fade away, and Mr. Fitzgerald keeps his job, since to dump him now wouldn’t look right. This is underwear we can believe in.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.



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