The infamous Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt distinguished between “honest graft” and “dishonest graft.” Dishonest graft, he said, meant actual theft from the treasury, or shaking down criminals for bribes. Honest graft, on the other hand, simply meant taking advantage of private deals that arose in the course of public office. “I might sum up the whole thing by sayin’: I seen my opportunities and I took ’em,” he said.
Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich starts his federal trial today. And the Illinois Democrats who clung to his coattails for years are desperate to pretend they don’t know him. Back in 2003, Rep. Jan Schakowsky proclaimed of Blago: “He really is very smart. I don’t laugh at the idea [of his running for President] at all.” She added that when he walked into a room, “there was this crackle of electricity. Everyone wanted to touch him.”
That electricity prompted Rep. Schakowsky to donate $28,000 to Blago’s campaigns for governor. Her husband, convicted felon and political strategist Robert Creamer, made $541,000 helping Blago get elected in 2002. She lobbied him heavily in November 2008 in the hope that he would appoint her to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Barack Obama, and is thought to be “Senate Candidate 3” in the original criminal complaint.
Now she is trying to laugh it off, nervously telling the Politico that the trial will be a “soap opera.” She and other Illinois Democrats are trying to pretend that even though Blago’s alleged crimes involved prominent figures in federal, state, and local government, he was a lone wolf. But they are nervous, because the connections are there. (Is it just a coincidence that President Obama chose last weekend, of all others, to visit Chicago?)
The story they are all sticking to is that Blago is a special case–and he has done his best to prove them right. Rather than laying low, he has used every camera and open mic to denounce the federal prosecutor and the allies who abandoned him. Yet selling the Senate seat–the “f***ing valuable thing,” to quote Blago–was what Plunkitt would have recognized as “honest graft.” It is the rule in Chicago, not the exception.
David Axelrod said it himself in an article he penned for the Chicago Tribune in August 2005. Back then, he was advising both Obama and Mayor Richard Daley, and defended Daley against allegations of corruption. Trading favors for votes, Axelrod said, was not a scourge, but a better way of doing business. Political grease made government “a well-oiled machine,” he wrote, elevating corruption from a problem to a philosophy.
Blago has claimed, repeatedly, that he will be vindicated. He may be right, in one sense: he will be brought down for “honest graft,” not the “dishonest” kind. Along the way, the public will get a close-up view of how Axelrod’s “well-oiled machine”–now exported to Washington, DC–really works. And people are more curious now than ever, because in the midst of a budget crisis at every level, we are aware of the true costs of corruption.
Tammany Hall fell when it could no longer pay the mortgage on its lavish headquarters. In the same way, today’s political bosses are up against the financial reality of massive public debt and underfunded pensions. They know the federal spending can only last so long; they’re just taking their opportunities, like Blago and Plunkett did–and like the White House hoped Joe Sestak and Andrew Romanoff would. November brings a different kind of opportunity–an opportunity for voters to bring about real reform. It is a chance that may not come again.