- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Since the Blagojevich scandal in Illinois has taken rather too much time and space during these last weeks of 2008, and since even loyal homegrown Chicagoans such as I have found time to have some fun over our good state’s bad political reputation, perhaps it is appropriate before the New Year to do a little somersault.

Let’s say it’s in honor of the newest great Illinoisan, our president-elect, Barack Obama. For the devil of it, let’s make a list of all the wonderful pols who have come out of Illinois and thus, perhaps, armor ourselves with hope for the coming year.

As it happens, Illinois historically has a plethora of great people. The problem is that neither we in the press, nor Illinoisans in the citizenry, appropriately celebrate them.

As it happens, my old friend Don Rose, arguably the best political analyst in Chicago, recently did my work for me in a comprehensive column for the Chicago Sun-Times when he tallied up the state’s “long tradition … of fighting corruption from City Hall to the corridors of Springfield” - and named names.

There was Gov. John Peter Altgeld in the 1890s: When he saw three men wrongly jailed for the Haymarket bombing, he had the “courage to pardon them despite the political consequences.” There was Gov. Richard Ogilvie, who a half-century later signed a state income tax even though knowing it would doom his governorship. Or think of Adlai E. Stevenson II, Adlai III, Paul Douglas, Charles Percy, Paul Simon, Dawn Clark Netsch, Elmer Gertz and many, many others.

So why, then, do men and women like these not gain the attention they should in a state which, unfortunately, has become famous for its psycho malcontents, political mercenaries and honor-challenged mavericks? I think there are two major reasons:

First, people are fascinated with Chicago’s Democratic machine, of which Rod Blagojevich was an underachieving member. Readers are far more interested in the machine, its rampant peculiarities about money and morality and its aversion to reform (43rd Ward Alderman Paddy Bauler in 1955: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform”) than they are in the boring straight-shooters on the other side.

Second, the media in general plays up the no-goods. Who wants to read about the tiresomely good Dick Oglivie, or even the great liberal alderman Leon “Len” Despres, who for decades was the only “progressive” among the barely literate nudniks on the City Council?

Instead, they just love to read and boast about how bad we are. Readers eat up the stories about Mr. Blagojevich: They are amusing, and they speak to us of the human saga. Meanwhile, the actual city of Chicago is wonderfully run by a special mayor, Richard M. Daley. So really, who cares about the amusing caprices of a goofy governor?

Interestingly enough, I have found exactly the same situation at play in my coverage of the rest of the world. As a foreign correspondent, I have now covered 18 wars, conflicts, guerrilla actions, uprisings and civil disturbances, and I could be assured of a rich readership for each one, supposing of course that I survived.

But I have also insisted upon covering what I call the “countries that work.” I have, on my own budget, gone to little nations like Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the Sultanate of Oman, Tunisia, Slovenia and others, which are wonderfully busy defeating poverty, developing thriving businesses, liberating women and working out institutional frameworks for governance that fit their own history, culture and potential.

In the early 1990s, for instance, I was in the newly freed Poland after the Berlin Wall came down, and I was talking with the nation’s economic genius, Leszek Balcerowicz. He told me how he and his team, even through the 1980s under Soviet communist rule, quietly studied the “countries that worked” - for them, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Chile - so that once they were free, they could institutionalize their new free economy in the right way. They could, and in fact they did.

I have found it thrilling, seeing these little countries pulling themselves upright. But did anyone read those stories? Far more would read my interviews with Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro or Yasser Arafat. That’s just the way the world is, and that’s where Rod Blagojevich and his/my Illinois come in, too.

If I could ask for one wish for New Year’s, I would wish that my readers would embrace, and even comment on all those “dull” stories. You want to know a secret? They’re really the most interesting ones in the world.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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