There's a scene in the 1940 film The Great McGinty, writer-director Preston Sturges' rollicking comedy about big-city political corruption (and keep in mind that the big city where Sturges grew up was Chicago), in which the mayor invites a would-be contractor to look at a photograph that is hanging on his office wall. The photograph shows a sports stadium filled to capacity.
How many people would you guess are in that photo? the mayor asks. (I don't have the screenplay before me, and I'm approximating the dialogue from memory, in case you're wondering what the italics signify.) Ten thousand, the contractor says -- low-balling the number, having figured out that the discussion is really about the size of the kickback he'll have to give the mayor in order to get the contract. Oh, a lot more than that, the mayor replies. Twenty thousand, the contractor says, his voice growing weaker. More than that, says the mayor. You tell me, the contractor wheezes. How many?
It's been 68 years since McGinty premiered, and an even 80 years since The Front Page, that masterful celebration of tabloid journalism and corrupt big-city politics by Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charley MacArthur, opened on Broadway. And damned if Gov. Rod Blagojovich of Illinois didn't bone up for his job by modeling virtually his every act on the dim-witted greed-head pols whom Hecht, MacArthur, and Sturges re-created so lovingly from their memories of Chicago corruption. Like McGinty, who runs for mayor as the reform candidate (so designated by the political machine's boss after the boss' previous pick overstays his welcome), Blagojovich reached the statehouse as the "reform" candidate following the tenure of Republican Gov. George Ryan, currently serving time in a federal prison for corruption. And at no point did Blagojovich -- who owed his career to his father-in-law, a longtime Chicago alderman -- strike anyone as a more plausible reformer than McGinty did in Sturges' picture. The transcripts of the recordings the FBI made of Blagojovich reveal a pol at once so venal and pin-headed that he seems to have dripped straight from Sturges' pen (allowing for the fact that in Sturges' day, dialogue had to be sanitized to get past the censors). Consider his appraisal of the beauty of his situation when Blagojovich realizes he can appoint the next senator: "I've got this thing, and it's fucking golden, and I'm not giving it up for fucking nothing," he says. Then there's his crestfallen disappointment when he realizes the Obama people have no interest in giving him material rewards should he appoint Obama's friend Valerie Jarrett to the Senate: "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," he laments. "Fuck them."
So -- does this troglodyte drag Obama down a peg, even though he's on record cursing the president-elect? Clearly, Republicans hope so, but it's not as if these kinds of associations, tenuous though they may be, haven't dogged our greatest presidents before. In the months leading up to his election as president in 1932, then Gov. Franklin Roosevelt of New York was compelled to hold hearings on the emerging corruption scandals enveloping Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City, the dapper, good-time front man for Tammany Hall, with which reformer Roosevelt had long been at war. FDR had to find a solution that wouldn't infuriate the big-city Democratic machines, which saw their own foibles writ large in the affairs of Tammany, yet would please his own reformer, goo-goo (that's short for good-government) base. Shortly before the election, Walker resigned, sparing FDR the necessity of having to oust the mayor himself. Republicans harrumphed at what they claimed was Roosevelt's lack of rectitude, but he emerged effectively unscathed.
Lincoln had his own corrupt pol he couldn't quite elude: Sen. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania, who had assured Lincoln's nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention by throwing his state behind Lincoln at a crucial moment. Cameron's corruption was already the stuff of legend, but the Pennsylvania GOP clamored for his appointment to Lincoln's Cabinet, and in time, Lincoln succumbed -- though he kept Cameron out of the Treasury, for which Cameron had been angling, by making him secretary of war. After one corrupt year at the War Department (a backwater which had abruptly become important after the attack on Fort Sumter), Cameron tested Lincoln's tolerance one time too many, and he was eased out of Washington to become ambassador to Russia.
In Roosevelt's case, his relations with Walker were never those of an ally, but the main reason he avoided any flack was the seriousness of the economic crisis. In Lincoln's case, political exigencies compelled his appointment of Cameron, but the main reason he avoided any major flack was the seriousness of the nation's existential crisis -- it had been sundered by secession and was embroiled in civil war. In Obama's case, it's clear that the president-elect has not regarded Blagojovich as an ally -- he even refused to let Blago speak at this summer's Democratic Convention in Denver. Still, Republicans will seek to link the two, and it was politically stupid for Obama not to repudiate Blagojovich in his remarks yesterday. The GOP and its Limbaughs and Hannitys will doubtless go after Obama for his associations, antagonistic though they may have been, with Blago. But, like Lincoln and Roosevelt, Obama will get the benefit of whatever doubt may arise among his countrymen in large part because the nation, once again, is in crisis, which no one but the new president will have the power to diminish.
Plus, there's this: Obama and Blagojovich are the alpha and omega of American pols. One is the most brilliant intellectual elected president since Lincoln; the other, quite probably the biggest doof to come before the American public since the Three Stooges hung it up. Try, if you can, to imagine a prolonged private discussion between the two without envisioning Obama squirming in discomfort (or at minimum suppressing his squirming), while Blagojovich either fumes at what he sees as Obama's pretensions or is just plain oblivious to Obama's desire to be elsewhere. The two are oil and water, as the American public doubtless sees.
Nonetheless, it's the genius of Illinois democracy -- which spawned Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, innumerable governors who have gone to the clink, and the inspirations for Sturges, Hecht, and MacArthur -- that it elected them both. Prospero and Caliban inhabit the same island. It makes for good drama.
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)