Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chicago rules

Blagojevich is the issue of the day -- or, maybe was, now that an Iraqi pair of shoes have been thrown at President Bush.

The turd tossed by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich into Barack Obama’s punch bowl had been floating there for 48 hours when the president-elect stepped to the podium at his press conference last Thursday morning. Obama’s initial response to the astonishing—and comical, and nauseating, and DSM-worthy-crazy—corruption case had seemed wan, perfunctory. His call for Blago’s resignation had been issued through a spokesman. But Obama’s handling of the matter at the press conference was more sure-footed. Beyond the substance of what he said, his tone and bearing were pretty much pitch-perfect: saddened, disgusted, denunciatory, not the least defensive. And his oblique reference to being called a “motherfucker” by Blagojevich (“I won’t quote back some of the things that were said about me … this is a family program, I know”) earned him extra points for humor.

It really seems a tempest in a teapot (well, maybe in a fucking teapot). That Blago denounced Obama and his camp for not paying him off seems enough evidence. But, the media needs something to chew over, and that punk remains good copy.

For Obama, one question is whether all this will be damaging or merely distracting. And another is whether Blago’s will be the last grasping, clawlike hand to reach up from the Illinois swamp and try to seize Obama by the ankles.

There seems to be an attempt by some of the media to ignore the murky side of politics, to cast this incident as a besmirching of the otherwise virginal land of politics. Poppycock.

Nobody doubts that Obama was with the reformers in Illinois, both in terms of the legislation he helped pass in the State Senate (including on campaign finance and ethics) and in his philosophical orientation. But Obama was hardly some sort of anti-Establishment firebrand. He is close to the Daleys—Mayor Richard and brother Bill—and Emil Jones, a longtime leader in the State Senate. He assisted Blagojevich in getting elected in 2002, and though they have been estranged for some years, he supported Blago for reelection and refused to condemn him (or Mayor Daley) when they became ensnared in corruption contretemps, a fact that left some reform-minded supporters “feeling alienated and angry,” according to Lizza. And, of course, there was his alliance and friendship with Rezko.

Of course Obama isn't pure. Purity goes nowhere in politics. PTA, school board, library board; any and all organizations require maneuvering, positioning, alliance-building, and more, to be effective, get anywhere, get things done.

In all of this, Obama calls to mind Bill Clinton. Clinton’s various entanglements in the Razorback State’s quasi-feudal political and business cultures came back to haunt him during his time in office, most glaringly in the case of Whitewater.

At first, this seems a stretch. Clinton's wife had a lot of baggage, too: Rose law firm, and so on.

That Whitewater was a trumped-up tin-pot scandal in which WJC was never proved to have done anything illegal is beside the point—or, more accurately, is precisely the point. The investigations Whitewater spawned were more intrusive than a thousand colonoscopies. They consumed countless news cycles, drained away political capital, inflicted horrendous legal bills on dozens of innocent bystanders, and energized the Republicans and their allies on the fringes of society and in the mainstream media. And for what? For nada.

A little reflection, though, shows that it isn't much of a stretch. Whitewater became the hook for a lot of anti-Clinton activism by the extreme right wing. Clinton added fuel to the fire: Hillary didn't want to bake cookies, Zoe Baird hadn't paid nanny taxes, don't ask-don't tell.

Could Blagogate do something similar to Obama? Already one “prominent Chicago Democrat” is telling Politico that the mess poses the risk of “Whitewater-type exposure” to the president-elect. “What will splatter on to Obama is he is to some degree a product of this culture, and he has never entirely stood against it,” said this person.

The contention that it shouldn't matter much, that the problems we face are so immense that minor stuff such as this should not even be on the radar screen misses the point: that is how politics work, and to ignore that is, at best, naive. Yet Obama being from the Chicago machine is not in itself a crime, legal or political. Every politician comes from a machine of one sort or another.

It’s obviously pertinent here that no one is accusing Obama himself of any sort of wrongdoing—quite the contrary. (Equally so that Patrick Fitzgerald is no Ken Starr.) And if it turns out that Team Obama’s hands are clean, the political danger for the incoming administration will be significantly reduced. But even then, it’s safe to assume that any transitionite who spoke to Blago or his chief of staff, no matter how innocently or appropriately, will have to lawyer up in preparation for the forthcoming trial. The GOP is already seizing the opportunity to hammer Obama; they are likely to cling to the slimmest reed in an effort to keep the story alive.

Let one crisis begin, or let one of Obama's initiatives catch fire, and the GOP will have to, and need to, stop appearing obstructionist.

There are no shining cities (or states) on a hill in local American politics. Some are nastier, sleazier, and uglier than others, but none are what you’d properly call pretty. Winning the presidency promises, among other things, an escape from all of that. But few presidents in recent memory have been able to avoid a Michael Corleone moment: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” This is the first such moment for Obama. For his sake, and, Heaven help us, for ours too, let’s hope it’s his last.

American, or any other, politics has no shining cities on a hill. That Reaganite metaphor is, and always was, nonsense. Reagan had dead Marines in Lebanon, voo-doo economics, ballooning deficits, and Irangate. His myth is based on ideological loyalty from, and the stupidity of, his supporters.

This will not be Obama's last major administrative problem. That is not the challenge (to avoid such problem); the challenge is to handle them properly.

No comments:

Post a Comment