The Chicago Rules

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.

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.


The Chicago Rules