Illinois Pols, Cash Must Come Out of the Closet

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) — It probably comes as a surprise to some that now a fourth Illinois governor is facing jail time. Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested this week by U.S. Attorney General Patrick J. Fitzgerald for allegedly trying to sell the president-elect's Senate seat.

But the surprised don't include people from Illinois. Illinois people know the state has two kinds of politicians. One is the Abe Lincoln kind. The other is the Richard J. Daley kind, after the legendary "boss" who ran Chicago as mayor from 1955 until his death in 1976. These two types are less different than they seem.

The Lincoln kind is usually tall, usually an egghead, impossibly moral, and always a reformer. In this class stood hulking Paul Douglas, almost 6-feet, 3-inches. Senator Douglas saved the Indiana Dunes from development, led lawmakers on Capitol Hill in integrating their office staffs, and joined the U.S. Marines as a private at age 50 to show his patriotism.

Yet another in the Lincoln line was Adlai Stevenson II, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who stood up against the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Stevenson famously continued to wear a shoe even after he'd worn a hole in its sole by campaigning so hard. President-elect Barack Obama aspires to fall into this category.

Running Into Trouble

This first sort represent Illinois, often outside Illinois. The second sort run Illinois.

And they run into trouble, at least most of the time. Richard J. Daley, the current mayor's father, clashed loudly with reforming Democrats from his own party. The early 1970s brought the conviction of Otto Kerner, a former governor and federal judge. While governor, Kerner acquired shares in a race track association and then helped its owner secure favorable dates for races.

More recently there is the sad case of George Ryan. He won the attention of many of us in early 2003 for reviving the gubernatorial pardon and commuting the sentences of 167 people on death row. Now parked in prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, Ryan was convicted of illegally steering contracts in exchange for favors.

A third governor to go to prison was Dan Walker. In his youth Walker was a crusading lawyer who made his name documenting the very real brutality of the first Mayor Daley's police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Then Walker ran for governor in a blue work shirt as an anti-Machine candidate. But after his term in Springfield, Walker was convicted of fraud involving a failing savings and loan. In other words, Walker belonged, by turns, to both categories.

And of course there are those in this second category who win the race to the grave without a pit stop in prison. Richard J. Daley himself was one. Another was a former Illinois secretary of state, Paul Powell. At Powell's death, the New York Times reported, the governor actually placed guards outside the official's office to keep staff from removing documents.

Cash in Boxes

Then Powell's executor found $800,000 in shoe boxes in Powell's closet at the Hotel St. Nicholas. "I have tried as hard as I can to find where the money came from," the embarrassed man — a university chancellor, no less — said.

There's something wrong with this dynamic of public angels and closet crooks.

For one thing, the Lincoln line's idealism limits its success. Stevenson lost both of his presidential campaigns against Dwight Eisenhower. He himself explained why: "Governor Stevenson, all thinking men are for you," a voice in a crowd is said to have cried out. "Yes," the governor replied. "But I need a majority to win."

For another, the two categories do blur, as the above pictures suggest. Some who fell afoul of the law also do a lot of good — Ryan's death row moves, Mayor Richard J. Daley's city management. Some who hang with the old crowd, or come out of it — the sons of the old mayor — are reformers.

Fickle Voters

Voters are fickle. First they cheer the prosecution of the politicians. Then they turn around and re-elect the prosecutor's dream targets. If showy trials actually reestablished the rule of law, then Illinois would be all cleaned up by now, just like the waters of Lake Michigan. But the 78-page-length of Fitzgerald's complaint suggests that little has changed since they dragged out Powell's shoe boxes.

Another problem is that we fail to remember that prosecutors can be wrong. Fitzgerald's New York corollary, Eliot Spitzer, fell as spectacularly as a statue of Stalin. With the revelations of Spitzer's personal errors have come second thoughts about the worthiness of his prosecutions.

In Illinois, the preoccupation with scandalous business has made it more difficult to pass reform that serves legitimate business.

Though it's hard to remember when you're reading about Blagojevich's efforts to place his wife on corporate boards, Illinois is in a budget crisis. Pensions of employees of one its biggest companies, the Tribune Co., are in jeopardy. Yet Topic A is that Blagojevich tried to silence a Tribune editorialist.

In short, sure, pull the pols and their wads out of their closets. But remember, especially now, as the states queue up for their bailouts, that there are all shades of error committed each day in our states. And most of those are better addressed in the state house than at a prosecutor's press conference.

(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2008 Bloomberg

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