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The heart of Blagojevich

POSTED: December 31, 2008 9:48 a.m.
When Franklin Roosevelt was pounding on the evils of business at the height of the New Deal, the great economist John Maynard Keynes tried to pull him back: “It is a mistake to think businessmen are more immoral than politicians.”
At a time when the titans of American finance have become synonymous in the public mind with recklessness and greed, here comes Illinois Gov. Rod “Expletive” Blagojevich to confirm Keynes’ long-ago wisdom. Blagojevich’s greed wasn’t just open and ham-fisted, it was remarkably petty –– one scheme he discussed was selling Obama’s Senate seat for a mere $150,000 annual salary for his wife on a corporate board. If that’s all Blagojevich could get for a coveted Senate seat, he wasn’t even very good at corruption.
That he was from Chicago was key. The city has never had a reform movement that has overturned the old-school, ethnic-based machine politics. It used to be said that Chicago was the only East European city governed by Irishmen. Its politics became more open by cutting new groups into the loot. Blagojevich’s conversations were probably most spectacular for having been caught on tape, not for their F-bomb-laden, grossly self-interested nature.
All of this would represent a threat to Obama only if his team were caught up in deal-making with Blagojevich. Obama denies it, and Blagojevich cursed Obama for offering nothing but “appreciation” in return for offering to appoint his favored candidate, Obama’s long-term aide Valerie Jarrett. But the scandal is a reminder of the dirty Chicago political ether through which Obama rose without a trace –– never challenging the corruption –– in the course of a career notionally devoted to reforming politics.
One of the most intriguing questions about Obama in the mess is, “What made him think Valerie Jarrett was qualified to be appointed to the U.S. Senate?” Obama clearly wanted to reward a friend. Hey, that’s how politics works.
It’ll be interesting how the natural transactional aspect of politics is distinguished in the Blagojevich case from rank criminality. Was it a crime for Senate Candidate 5, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., allegedly to offer to raise $500,000 for Blagojevich in exchange for the Senate appointment, or just an overly explicit act of normal horse-trading?
If Blagojevich’s instinct for enrichment rose to criminality, it’s hardly unusual. Even the most impeccably liberal scourges of greed manage to get rich quickly after public life. In a 2-1/2-year period between working in Clinton’s White House and running for Congress, Barack Obama’s new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, made $16.2 million in investment banking at the small firm of Wasserstein Perella. All it took, surely, was hard work, a little luck –– and knowing Clinton fundraiser and Wall Street mogul Bruce Wasserstein.
As the debate over private-sector excess and greed continues, it’s useful to remember most politicians have an inner Blagojevich –– because they are just as human as the private malefactors they denounce. To paraphrase the late Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil doesn’t run between the public and private sector but “through the heart of every man.” Especially in Chicago.

Lowry is editor of the National Review.
 

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