Corruption in USA, Inc.: The Blago Affair

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: 10.01.2009

What is to be made of the sordid little case of seat selling by Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich? Not much, judging from reactions in the US. And those who do are treated like members of an outdated inquisition, hypocrites who guard a moral order long dead, assuming it ever existed. The American republic occasionally reminds us that its politics is the perennial scrap of a crude plutocracy rather than the deliberations of truly accountable officials. This should come as little surprise to watchers in politics land who have witnessed that agent of change, Barack Obama, come to power on the back of a presidential election that cost $5.3 billion.

Selling a senatorial seat in such blatant fashion might outrage some because Blago has been rather exhibitionist about it. He decided to tell us, in rather clumsy fashion over wiretapped conversations, that American politics was an emperor without clothes. These were probably lost as the new republic started shedding luster in the late 19th century with its embrace of corrupt political machines. But perhaps the rot had already well and truly set in during the first years of the fledgling state. Decay sets in at the top, and the gifted Alexander Hamilton, to take an example, made some cash out of his connections (he was subsequently shown, along with Benjamin Franklin, to have spied for Britain).

Such honesty in the trading of seats is, of course, treated as a sign of insanity just as wickedness is treated as a sign of ignorance. The blogosphere is alive with claims that Blago has lost his marbles. A defense of diminished capacity has been suggested.

Blagojevich might be a bad egg, and this has been accepted by the Illinois state legislature which has voted to impeach him. But he is not an exceptionally rotten one from the battery hens of America's political system. Some have even written his "pay-to-play" off as one of those cases of bargaining and positioning that comes with a political system that thrives on fundraising and favours. Consider this Zen-like prescription from the Centre for Responsive Politics: "Fundraising is not just a way that candidates demonstrate their viability: it's a necessary task given the tremendous costs of running a campaign." Did Blago, in short, purport to "sell" Obama's vacated seat, not for self-enrichment, but fundraising? The jury is still out on that one.

In any case, senators, representatives, and their seats, have been up for sale for decades. Votes are infinitely buyable. Remember, wrote Gore Vidal in 1973, the Kennedy relation who left a bag full of money at a barber's to be divvied amongst "the honest yeomen of West Virginia in exchange for their support of the family's candidate." Then there is that 1972 classic from lobbyist Robert N. Winter-Berger, Washington Pay-Off, which is particularly instructive about the practices of America's highest officials from President Lyndon B. Johnson down.

Has much changed? Evidently not. When the briber is Boeing or General Electric, or a private donor from the Forbes rich list, the electorate approves or at the very least remains reticent. A superficial sense of decorum is maintained, and the electors can go about getting even less for their now rather ravaged dollar.

The recent theatrical installment - the appearance of Blagojevich appointee Roland Burris, who has sought to claim Obama's seat as junior senator from Illinois - takes the saga further. Burris was duly rejected by the secretary of the Senate, though a series of steps have been suggested to bring him into the fold. Under pressure from Obama, Harry Reid has relented. Another seat, incidentally, also remains vacant - that from Minnesota. The issue there is an election dispute. The 111th Congress remains two members short.

There is even a sense of outrage by some commentators that people should care about purported corruption in the topsy-turvy world of Illinois politics. (What is first in the news? The strafing of the Gaza Strip, mortgage repayments or the auction of vacant Senate seats?) Veteran newsreader Jim Lehrer, and David Gregory of Meet the Press, see little problem in the world of "pay-to-play". Punish Blago, and you punish the political system.

The quixotic governor is even delighting some commentators with his pluck. Ruben Navarrette of the San Diego Union-Tribune was thrilled by the governor's "chutzpah" and ability to procure chaos. (Showing his viability, perhaps?) He was, after all, innocent till proven otherwise, a golden presumption yet to fall by the way side. "You have to admire someone so committed to his job that he won't let a little thing like a prosecution interfere with doing it."

Navarrette is right about one thing: there is little doubt that the Illinois governor is committed to his job. Blagojevich, to boot, has put Burris forth as a paragon of good race relations - the first African-American to be elected statewide in Illinois causing alarm to those trembling white males in the Democratic Party. Such material is grist to the mill of mythmaking.

Illinois' Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn is upset that the state has become an "international laughing stock". One can't help thinking that he feels rather wounded that Blago is still there, resolutely blocking his own pathway to the governorship. American politics has been admired, to a greater or lesser extent, precisely for its satanic genius in treating public affairs as those of a business. Blago's sin (or test of viability?) remains his candour, the inadvertent whistleblower run wild. His punishment will not, in itself, reform the state, let alone the republic. Publicly funded elections might, though that will result in the death of a creed long respected by the burghers of the United States.

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