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 governor Rod (F***ing) Blagojevich to confirm Keynes’ long-ago wisdom. His contribution to the contemporary political lexicon is to have made the unnamed, numerated potential U.S. Senate appointees in the complaint against him sound as dirty as the unnamed johns in the Eliot Spitzer case — is it worse to be Senate Candidate 5 or Client 9?
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.
The sins of Blagojevich obviously don’t taint all politicians, most of whom honorably discharge their duties. But it should tell us at least a little something about the breed that such a monumentally stupid, arrogant, and boorish man was quite adept at his craft, getting elected three times to Congress from Chicago and elected governor twice.
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?” Besides working for Obama, Jarrett’s most notable substantive accomplishment was managing federally subsidized slum property in Chicago, in which line of work her extensive connections served her well.
Obama clearly wanted to reward a friend. Hey, that’s how politics works, even among demi-messianic figures promising to raise us all above selfishness. 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 two-and-a-half-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.