Monday, December 22, 2008

Blagojevich, Fitzgerald--and Obama

As the President-Elect vacations in Hawaii and the besieged governor hunkers down back home, the relentless prosecutor keeps chipping away at their state's institutionalized corruption.

Today there is a leaked backgrounder in the Washington Post, headlined "Secret Tapes Helped Build Graft Cases In Illinois," detailing five years of what Fitzgerald calls "wide-ranging schemes where people are seeking to make people pay contributions to get contracts or appointments or do other stuff."

In the interconnected stories of this threesome, there are clues to the nature of 21st century political life and the human beings who struggle with its temptations and contradictions.

Fitzgerald and Blagojevich are stereotypical--the crusader who never sleeps and the corkscrew pol who never stops stealing--but their collision is moving beyond clich├ęs into a more complicated picture of people and power in a new century and raising questions about how Barack Obama managed to navigate that world without being tainted by it.

The Obama organization wants to take Rahm Emanuel off the hook by insisting the prospective chief of staff had "only had one phone call with Gov. Blagojevich. It wasn’t even really about the Senate seat.” But the governor's new phone friend, Willie Brown of California, is saying "there were some pretty heated conversations between Blagojevich and Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, which I understand will burn your ears off."

Be that as it may, the melodrama of New Politics vs. Old is likely to go on for some time now, at the cost of an empty Illinois Senate seat, while the Obama administration struggles with the high-profile problems that are plaguing the country.

As Fitzgerald keeps plodding forward, nagging questions involving the new president will center on convicted fixer Tony Rezko, described by the Post as the "gatekeeper to Blagojevich, advising him on appointments to boards and commissions."

During the campaign, Obama returned Rezko's contributions, stressing he had not been accused of any wrongdoing in his association with him while admitting that Rezko's involvement in the buying of the Obamas' Chicago home was a "boneheaded" mistake.

The Fitzgerald-Blagojevich confrontation is a high-wire media circus of good vs. evil, but the peripheral role of the new president who is shouldering the burdens of America's future is a reminder that what human beings do when the stakes are high is never that simple.

An incident from 40 years ago keeps coming back to mind. As a delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, I found myself alone in a hotel elevator with political boss Stanley Steingut, a decent man, after his egregious power play had cut off an antiwar resolution in the state caucus meeting.

Enraged, I asked him, "Does your mother know what you do for a living?"

He gave me the kindliest of smiles, took my elbow and said sadly, "Politics, kid."

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