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The Chicago Rules

Obama’s Illinois past is not gone. It’s not even past.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

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.

Yet one of the concrete takeaways from the Q&A was that the Obamans won’t be moving past Blagogate in anything like a heartbeat. Though Obama reiterated his claim that he never talked to the governor about the filling of his former Senate seat, he was careful not to say that no one on his team had done the same. He pledged to “gather all the facts about any staff contacts that may have taken place” between transition officials and Blago or his people and present them in the days ahead.

Assuming Obama follows through, this is a commendable first step toward the new transparency he’s promised. And certainly it would mark a departure from the way that George W. Bush and Bill Clinton handled similar situations. But it guarantees at least one more round of stories about the incoming administration’s connection to the Blagobroglio—and, depending on the nature of the contacts and who engaged in them, maybe more than that. Lawyers. Depositions. Testimony. The endless braying and conspiracy-theorizing of the right-wing freak show. 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.

For all the coverage of Obama’s rise, his political gestation in that swamp remains one of the least understood aspects of his history. Ryan Lizza’s long piece in The New Yorker this past summer on the subject was superb, but much of its force lay in the fact that the ground he covered was so untilled. Beyond that, there was abundant (though largely unenlightening) coverage of Obama’s relationship to Tony Rezko—and not much else that managed to break through the clutter. I’d wager that, before last week, no more than a handful of national reporters could have told you if Obama and Blagojevich were friends, foes, or something in between.

When Obama was asked at his press conference, “What’s wrong with politics in Illinois?” by a gobsmacked Chicago reporter, he outlined two competing traditions in the Land of Lincoln: “There’s a view of politics that says you go into this for sacrifice and public service, and then there’s a view of politics that says this is a business, and you’re wheeling and dealing, and ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” he said.

Obama’s delineation is too neat, too binary; countless pols, especially in the milieus of Chicago and Springfield, straddle the line, embracing both views to one degree or another, albeit implicitly. More to the point, even among those in Illinois who cast themselves as members of the Democratic Party’s reform wing, the salient question is their orientation toward those flapping on the other side of the bird: Do they accommodate (or cozy up to) the machine or crusade against it?

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.

In all of this, Obama calls to mind Bill Clinton. Aside from the wack-job caucus, few regarded Clinton’s lengthy tenure in the Arkansas statehouse as egregiously corrupt. But neither would any history of great reformist governors feature him prominently, if at all. Some of his close friends from Little Rock would wind up in prison: Susan McDougal, Webb Hubbell. And 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.


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