Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Personal Asides: Blago Benefited from Chicago Cynicism Which Permeated the Jury. More.

 Feast of St. Helena.* 
        The story I did a few days ago about the Gangland Bus cruising around with goggle-eyed tourists hearing crime and corruption stories this town savors—and advertises—almost came true yesterday in every respect when a jury of Blago’s peers found him guilty of only one of the 24 criminal corruption charges he faced. 
          The reason the former governor didn’t get convicted on all 24 was not due to ineptitude of the prosecution—or the ineffable brilliance of the defense (although I will grant the defense better understood Chicagoans) —but because of  three things. 
        FIRST, , Chicagoans are inured to the belief that the way Blago worked the phones is what politicians do all the time…and the jury believed that the crimes he was charged with were akin to criminalizing political wheeling and dealing as they know it—and what they have respected grudgingly for years.  It is not incidental that we buried Dan Rostenkowski in the same week and the papers were filled with how he maneuvered to help Chicago…paying for his dexterity with some minor offenses including non-payment of postage stamps.   
        Pat Fitzgerald’s initial statement that Blago’s crimes would make Lincoln turn over in his grave was evidence of a super-heated overstatement in the minds of many locals. Come again: Lincoln would turn over in his grave? 
      Anyone who has deeply studied Lincoln, a political and literary genius,   knows that he was a successful railroad lawyer while he was a state legislator…knows that he unfurled a map of Illinois on his desk in the House and bargained the routes of railroad lines across the state, making deals on what towns the trains would stop at…which he used to run for the U.  S. Senate where he got more votes than Stephen A. Douglas (not that it did him any good as the legislatures in those days named U. S. senators and they picked Douglas). Remember there were no serious conflict of interest laws then binding state lawmakers.  
      This is the same Abe Lincoln who when he was a presidential candidate hopped on a train solo to Council Bluffs, Iowa and bought up a scad of real estate there.  Later as president when he got legislation through setting up cross-country railroads, the property ownership became valuable as Council Bluffs was a key centerpiece for the switching that sent trains throughout the country. Again, no conflict of interest laws hindered him…and to-boot Lincoln’s trip to Council Bluffs was paid by the railroads as he was a key attorney for many of them. 
       So was Lincoln turning over in his grave when Blago was dickering to fill a Senate seat?  Not hardly.  Not hardly.  
      Illinoisans don’t know much about Lincoln other than he was a great president but intuitively people in this state have always understood this is how things get done…and they grudgingly admire those who can do it…from Old Man Daley to his kid, to Eddie Burke, to Mike Madigan.   
        The only ones they can’t forgive are those pols who don’t do it very well…ala Jane Byrne (too inept) to Peter Fitzgerald (too damn honest…refusing to vote for goodies for Illinois out of pristine contentions…, who was allowed to retire when Ms. Barr Topinka deferring to Denny Hastert knifed him without much protest) to a number of Republicans whom they sneer at even acknowledging they were good for the city.  I’m thinking of one of the finest urban experts practically and intellectually in the nation., Dr. Donald Haider, who ran as a Republican against Harold Washington (Dem) and Ed Vrdolyak (Solidarity party), getting 4.3% of the vote. 
      No he wasn’t an overeducated academic with his head in the clouds. Haider had been the city’s budget director, assistant deputy secretary of the treasury when New York city was bailed out, a consultant to key public officials—all on top of a Stanford BA, a Columbia Masters and Ph.D. He would have been our greatest mayor but Big Business was in bed with the Dems and preferred to see those get elected who work the old ways.  
        That’s the first reason Blago got off from 23 counts.  Jurors didn’t see any exchange of money.  Nobody was killed or “disappeared.” 
     The second? 
       SECOND is a relatively late development: dislike of the federal government which is percolating like a kettle ready to blow its top.  Pat Fitzgerald and his team represent the federal government—a government of which the average guy is very suspicious.   
      THIRD, the jurors heard much about Tony Rezko, Stewart Levine, Valerie Jarrett, Rahm Emanuel but heard none of them testify.  They didn’t understand that in federal prosecution parlance conspiracy is a crime.  They asked “where is the smoking gun?” not recognizing that the smoking gun was apparent in the phone discussions.  
       Make no mistake: I think Blago should have been hit with the full book. I’m just trying to explain why he wasn’t.   The bill of indictment wasn’t too complicated. Jurors regularly deliberate on intricate financial matters.  I’m sure they asked themselves:  Wait a minute?  If this guy is so bad, did he get a payoff.  No?  Well what’s the shouting about then?  I think they would have been happy to convict young Jesse because that had all the earmarks of a proffer with a promise of dough to come.  I must say I think Fitz is no angel. I think what he did to Scooter Libby was far too slick—knowing all the time who leaked the Valerie Plame story and pretending he didn’t.  So in summary, I was for Blago getting the book thrown at him—but Patrick is sometimes too pristine for his own good—as he was with Scooter.  
                                           The Political Consequences. 
        Immediately after the jury’s decision and the judge’s statement that there would be a re-trial of the 23 points, the aura descended on the populace that this is somehow unfair.  Something like double jeopardy—which it isn’t.  It immediately crafts a feeling of sympathy for Blago—the non-legal public sentiment being that the jury considered all the evidence fair and square and let him walk on 23 points…now the big bad Feds are going to go after him again…and again…and again…and again—until they send him to jail.  Something strikes people as unfair.  
         It also strikes people as the height of federal prosecutorial excess.  The refrain was started by the Adamses: The Blago trial cost $30 million and he got convicted on one count.  We’re going to spend maybe another $30 million of federal money to do it again?  Plus Illinois taxpayers’ money to defend Blago since his private political money has run out? 
         A retrial will be exceedingly dangerous for all Democratic candidates and the Obama administration because it will likely showcase Emanuel and Jarrett as well as Tony Rezko.   
                                   Schakowsky the Saint? 
          I’m told by a wise reader that I was far too generous to Mme. Schakowsky in my critique yesterday of Melissa Bean…as when I said that Schakowsky didn’t have thugs at her Town  Halls.  He told me she most assuredly did.  Okay, I apologize for being overly generous to Schakowsky. It’ll never happen again.              
    *: Saint Helena [250-330].  The mother of the first Catholic emperor, Constantine and reportedly the discoverer of the True Cross.  She was born in what is now called Sicily, daughter of an innkeeper. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus who became emperor—but he divorced her.  Her son Constantine who followed his father as emperor, loved her very much and respected her counsel.  At the age of 60 Helena became a Catholic and so devout was she that people thought she had been one for years.  She dressed modestly, behaved modestly as mother of the Emperor, dispensed alms to the poor and prisoners in jail.  She decided to fulfill a longtime dream and took a trip to the Holy Land. 
      There she died but not before in company with others she discovered remnants of what was hailed as the True Cross.  Her role in the discovery was described by Saint Ambrose. She did far more than this however and was revered for her compassion and great common sense.  Coins were struck in her honor and at one time her reputation greatly exceeded that of her son the Emperor.


  1. The syndrome you describe is what I call "naive cynicism".

    People have been bombarded with so much stuff about corruption and secrets and deals that much of the general public thinks "Well, they all do it", "Everything's fixed", etc.

    I call it naive because it isn't based on any actual knowledge, and is often contradicted by the actual facts.

    My father insisted vehemently that the vote count in Florida was rigged for Bush because Secretary of State Katherine Harris was a Republican who had campaigned for Bush.

    I tried to point out to him that Harris had no power to count votes. Her function was only to add up the vote counts supplied by the county election boards, and publish the totals. The counties published their own results, which the news media added up themselves. The state totals matched the media totals. So there was no way for Harris to cook the results. He still insisted there must be fraud.

    I do think that some of the "ethics rules" recently established are "purer-than-snow" nonsense. There has been a hooraw about an alleged job offer to Rep. Sestak of PA to get him to drop his challenge to Sen. Specter.

    Well, historically, a deal where A gets a Cabinet post, while B runs for the Senate, would be politics as usual. One can easily imagine two powerful Whigs agreeing that one will run for governor and the other for the Senate, rather than both fighting over the same nomination. A Cabinet post has been a similar political plum.

    There doesn't even have to be a corrupt interest involved. A wants the Senate seat so he can advance certain policies; B persuades A not to run and to support B by the offer of a Cabinet post where he can advance some of those policies administratively. Instead of arguing for battleship funds in the Navy appropriation, he can be Secretary of the Navy and supervise battleship construction.

    But such deals upset some people. Jefferson Davis had a reputation of that sort. He absolutely refused to make deals for Senate votes: every vote was to be cast solely on its own merits.

    I suspect he wasn't a very effective legislator.

    But now offering a job is a bribe, and a Federal offense.

  2. Rich,

    Great term -- "naive cynicism". It captures the the attitude of so much of the public, voting or otherwise. You see it in the most over used political assessment, "They are all corrupt." But of course it is silly on its face. If everyone is corrupt, to some extent no one is corrupt. If corruption is completely normative, the word loses its meaning.

    It is useless and lazy thinking which leads to passivity. If they are all corrupt, why bother with politics, why get get involved? Why spend valuable time researching and learning about candidates when they are all the same in the end? I think many people adopt this attitude partly because it absolves them of their adult responsibility to take an active interested part in how we govern our society.

    We are governed by fellow citizens we elect to office. None of them are perfect because of course, no perfect men or women exist, but clearly some are better than others, some are more driven by honest, noble goals than others.
    To suggest otherwise is nonsense that flies in the face of experience.

    Here in IL we have chosen many poor governors, Blago and G. Ryan being among the worst and most corrupt. But a more engaged public and media could have chosen otherwise. Good decent men were available. Dem. Glen Poshard would have been a much better choice than Ryan in the general election, and an able, accomplished and straight-forward Paul Vallas would have been an excellent choice in any election let alone against Blago in the 2002 Dem primary. We the people of IL collectively bear a portion of the blame for choosing bad people to lead us when good ones were available. At some point as a society, we get what we deserve.

    Beyond election getting into the practice of government, naive cynicism tars everything as corruption obscuring what are really foul and criminal practices and what are merely less than ideal.

    One example would be government hiring. Someone's average brother-in-law gets a city job over more qualified applicants. If the brother-in-law does a decent job I can live with it, but if he doesn't show up, perform at least satisfactorily or is completely out of his depth then this practice becomes corruption. But if the connected guy performs his duties reasonably well, his getting the job over others is merely unfair in the way life is unfair.

    The same would apply to the doling out of gov't contracts. If connected vendors give good service and value for the money there is little to complain about, but if their prices are inflated, the work of poor quality while better vendors were shut out then we have entered into the world of corruption.

    There is plenty of corruption in gov't at all levels and we should work to limit it and root it out but let's not call everything corruption. It's not helpful.

    Sean O'Kane