Chicago and the Untouchables

The story line is considerably different from the days of Eliot Ness
and his team of investigators on a mission to clean up crime in
Chicago. But corruption is still the centerpiece and there is again at
least one Untouchable.

Will president-elect Barack Obama remain beyond reach?

Can anybody who came out of Chicago politics?

[The scandal] is a reminder that, for all his
inspirational talk of hope and change, Obama, like Blagojevich, are
both products of Chicago Democratic politics, which is capable of
producing leaders both sublime and sordid.

Obama has not always avoided the latter. For 20 years he attended
the church of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, now thrown under the bus, and
for more than a decade engaged in mutually beneficial exchanges
political and financial with the political fixer Tony Rezko, now in
federal custody.

Blagojevich, never a close political ally, has now been thrown under
the bus, too, and seems likely to share Rezko’s fate. Obama fans can
point out, truthfully, that other revered presidents had seamy
associates and made common cause on their way up with men who turned
out to be scoundrels. Franklin Roosevelt happily did business with
Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly, though warned that he was skimming off money
from federal contracts. John Kennedy no more thought to deny a request
from the Mayor Daley of his day than Obama has thought to buck the
Mayor Daley of his.

But as Kennedy supposedly said of a redolent Massachusetts
politician, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.” The man in
question was the Democratic nominee for governor and was not elected.
Until Patrick Fitzgerald released his tapes, Barack Obama never said
the same of Rod Blagojevich.

Obama has profited greatly from his careful climb through Chicago
politics. But there is an old saying that in politics nothing is free —
there is just some question about when you pay the price. Obama is
paying it now.

Common understanding around Chicago is that he made his way through
the ranks looking the other way, so if there is some ‘guilt’ to be
applied (like not saying of Blagojevich what Kennedy said of a
“redolent” fellow Democrat), it is by omission rather than commission,
it appears at this point.

To some degree, in the bounds of propriety of course, Obama is
expected to be personally interested in who succeeds him as senator
from Illinois. So some conversations are natural, and his early denial
of any seemed oddly aloof to a matter of vested interest. I personally
hope this remains beyond personal taint of the next president.

But questions of his judgment that sort of lingered around his campaign have been revived in this scandal eruption.

At first, Obama was vague, saying Tuesday that he was
sobered by Blagojevich’s arrest, had not discussed the Senate seat with
him and would not comment on an ongoing federal criminal investigation.
The next day, he said through a spokesman that Blagojevich should
resign, but did not address questions about staff communications with
the governor.

On Thursday, Obama pledged during a news conference (ostensibly
about health care) that he would investigate and release all the
contacts his staff had with the governor “in the next few days.” He
also expressed his personal outrage at the allegations and declared he
was “absolutely certain” no one from his office had any involvement in
deal-making about his successor.

The sequence was reminiscent of Obama’s reaction to controversy
earlier this year over incendiary remarks by Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.,
his former pastor. Among other things, Wright spoke of the “U.S. of
KKK,” said “God damn America” and said the 9/11 terrorist attacks
represented “chickens coming home to roost” for America’s racial sins.

Obama initially said he never heard Wright say anything
objectionable; later made a highly regarded speech on race in
Philadelphia that sought to put the minister’s remarks in the context
of black anger at racism; and finally disavowed the man.

In the summer, Obama came under political fire after reacting to
Russia’s military incursion into Georgia by calling for both sides to
cool down. He later stepped up his criticism of Russia.

“Obama is a very very cautious person…said Larry Sabato, a professor
at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about
media-driven scandals in politics. “But caution might be a good thing
in a president,” Sabato said.

As long as he’s totally in touch with the realities around him.


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