- - Wednesday, August 15, 2012

By Tom Fitton
Threshold Editions, $26.99, 400 pages

Since 1994, Judicial Watch has been on the front lines against political corruption in the nation’s capital. Founded as a watchdog group to keep an eye on the excesses of the Clinton administration, it has since developed a reputation as a nonpartisan crusader for good government, relentlessly dogging the George W. Bush administration during its eight years in office.

With three years of Chicago pol Barack Obama in the White House, it should come as no surprise that Judicial Watch has cataloged dozens upon dozens of outrages, enough to fill up an entire book. That is exactly what Tom Fitton, the organization’s president, has done with “The Corruption Chronicles: Obama’s Big Secrecy, Big Corruption, and Big Government.”

The book is easily the most comprehensive tour of the “Chicago way” we have seen to date. Earlier works have sounded the first alarm bells that the Obama White House was not as clean as it made itself out to be, and here Mr. Fitton fills in the details. He puts together an unrelentingly sordid tale of how President Obama is quite comfortable operating in the morally bankrupt idiom of the urban politico. He details shady dealings with cronies such as Tony Rezko, cozy relationships with union bosses, ethically questionable executive appointments, potential abuse of power in the use of executive czars, double talk on ethics reform, politicization of government agencies such as the National Education Association and, of course, the widespread practice of “crony capitalism,” which rewards friends of the president and the Democratic Party.

What is particularly valuable about this book is the first third, which details executive-branch malpractice during the Clinton and Bush years. This helps establish Judicial Watch’s credibility — as its inquiries into the Bush years prove that it is no tool of the Republican Party — but it does more than that. The fact that an entity like Judicial Watch has been so busy for the past 18 years demonstrates that there is an undeniable culture of corruption in Washington, D.C. Both political parties feel comfortable skirting the law to pursue their own political, and sometimes personal financial, goals. Thus, the book fits as a nice complement to Peter Schweizer’s recent “Throw Them All Out!” which details the seediness of congressional behavior.

Indeed, these accounts suggest that we might have entered something of a new gilded age. As the country limps through a weak economic recovery, politicians take advantage of weak ethics laws to line their own pockets, strong-arm their opponents and reward their supporters.

Unfortunately, this points to the limitations of the book. Because it basically is legal for the Obama administration not to disclose the nature of its dealings, the book is limited mostly to suggestion. For instance, a particularly unseemly chapter in the Obama history is the tale of how he came to own a double lot in Chicago’s tony Kenwood neighborhood. Mr. Obama’s political patron Tony Rezko, who is in jail, put up the cash for the second lot, and Mr. Obama received a fantastic mortgage deal from the Northern Trust Bank, whose employees had been longtime supporters of his political career. Was there a quid pro quo here? It is impossible to say for sure.

These sorts of problems usually are intractable for enterprising muckrakers like Mr. Fitton. Richard Nixon probably even would have survived the Watergate scandal had it not been for the tapes that provided the “smoking gun.” Otherwise, politicians almost always hide behind plausible deniability, even though when you add up the vast number of questionable practices — not just by Mr. Obama but by scores of Washington pols — you would be a fool to conclude that all, or even most, are actually clean.

The largest difficulty in the book is the overwhelming number of charges, several of which are less than persuasive and occasionally undercut his stronger points. Take, for instance, the Black Panther voting-suppression scandal of 2008. Mr. Fitton expertly runs through the stonewalling of the Justice Department, but he undermines his case by calling the Black Panthers “friends” of Barack Obama. This may not be fair — the New Black Panther Party undoubtedly was supporting then-Sen. Obama in 2008, but the word “friends” leaves the impression that there was a relationship between the two.

Similarly, Mr. Fitton occasionally toggles between outright corruption, political hardball and friendliness to far-left groups. The latter two certainly call into question the commitment then-candidate Obama made to transcending ideological lines and forging a new kind of politics, but it blurs the focus of the book, which is at its most precise when it stays on the subject of corruption.

Still, these objections do not alter the fact that Mr. Fitton has produced a noteworthy accomplishment in “The Corruption Chronicles.” With the “Chicago way” dominating the political process for the past three years, it is no little feat to put together a readable, engaging, persuasive account of what has gone wrong. The book is recommended not only to those upset about the Obama administration, but to any who worry that corruption is a norm tolerated by both political parties in today’s Washington.

Jay Cost, a staff writer for the Weekly Standard, is the author of “Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic” (Broadside Books, 2012).

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