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The Chicago Rules

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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.

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.

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.

At the press conference, Obama said that all he could do was “shake my head” after reading the Blago transcripts. One can only imagine his incredulity at the circus now unfolding around the case and what it might mean for him. Every politician arises in a context, which shapes him and affects his future in ways he can only barely comprehend. 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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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