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Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested this week on the basis of a 76-page report detailing alleged corruption that included plans to auction off former Sen. Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. Blagojevich has been recorded on tape spilling priceless gems that will contribute notably to Illinois’s heritage of thoroughly corrupt politics at all levels of government. Indeed, when all his deeds have finally been brought out, his tenure will no doubt stand as a milestone in the long and noble tradition of corrupt Illinoisans.
If Blagojevich is prosecuted, he’ll be the fourth Illinois governor to face corruption charges, and maybe even the fourth to serve a prison sentence as a result. This proud legacy can be traced back at least to that great patriarch of corruption, Gov. Len Small (1921-29), who was let off on charges of embezzling $600,000 from the state after he offered his jurors cushy state jobs. Such a grand inheritance of corruption can scarcely be rivaled in any other state, from sea to shining sea, and it’s important not to overlook the good men and women (well, mainly men) who made it all work.
After all, who could forget Blagojevich’s renowned predecessor, George Ryan? Ryan, a Republican, made a worthy contribution to Illinois’s tradition with his conviction in 2006 for 18 counts of fraud and corruption, including trading state deals for holidays in a Jamaican villa, funding his campaigns with state money, and selling drivers’ licenses. He topped former Governor Otto Kerner, who was convicted in 1973 for 17 counts of corruption, one of which involved trading permission to hold horse races for stock in horseracing companies. Governor Dan Walker also served time in 1987 for bank fraud, although, disappointingly, his conviction did not relate directly to his governorship.
Chicago has always stood at the apex of this tradition. It is no coincidence that the sentiment of William T. Stead— who lambasted the culture of corruption in the industrial city in a book entitled, “If Christ Came to Chicago”—seems appropriate even today.
Of course, Stead surely didn’t mean that Christ would have been disappointed with Chicago’s corrupt politicians: Who could really fault a city so embedded in its state’s political tradition? Leaders of Chicago’s infamous political dynasty, the Daley family, were daringly complicit in the cronyism and gangsterism led by Al Capone in the early 1900s; Mayor Richard J. Daley notably capitalized on the New Deal and segregated the city on racial lines solely in order to promote his own self-interest.
And let’s not neglect those less prestigious but no less devious players, good old American boys like 1950s State Secretary Orville Hodge, who embezzled around $1.5 million in state funds to buy private jets and cars, or former Democratic Rep. Mel Reynolds, who served time after his conviction in 1995 for 16 felonies involving campaign finance fraud. Even the unsuccessful have courageously toyed with scandal: Jack Ryan, Republican contender for the Senate in 2004, never lied or embezzled, but his campaign was nonetheless scuppered by allegations from his wife that he tried to get her to publicly perform indecent acts for his buddies at a sex club.
The Illinois political system must get its due credit too. Not every state in the US is wise enough to give its governor sole responsibility for appointing a new senator when one steps down. And few states can boast such a formidable Democratic Party machine, which undoubtedly makes things easier for those on the blue side of the spectrum to take some real American liberties with their position. We thank Gov. Blagojevich, his wife, and his advisers for contributing to a splendid heritage, one of which all Illinoisans may feel justly proud.
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