God knows if any of this is the president’s fault, but in their handling of the preposterous scandal surrounding Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic Party leaders under Barack Obaina have brought us all hurtling back to the nightmarish prevarication of the Clinton years — those horrifying days when the party’s enduring inability to act decisively allowed Barnum-esque con men like Ken Starr to hold all of America hostage.
For almost two decades now, the Democrats have blazed up every joint in sight, only to freeze at the crucial moment of inhalation. Clinton kicked off two excruciating terms of Solomon-esque waffling by splitting gays in the military right down the middle and ended by only half-admitting to being swallowed whole by an intern named Monica Lewinsky. Then came history’s first three-base balk in Florida (with James Baker waving Bush around to score), followed by a senseless war in Iraq that Democrats thought to oppose only once it became inexpedient to support.
All this bullshit, we hoped, might end with Barack Obama. But then came Blagojevich, a sleazeball whose massively publicized success in scheming a way to drop turd in the new president’s inaugural punchbowl is a gate-crashing leap above station on the order of Paris Hilton screwing her way into a speaking role in Gandhi or Amadeus. It’s a political disaster that happened only after Democrats once again froze in the headlights at the crucial moment, trying to flee in two different directions at once while a third-rate bookie in a tracksuit seized control of the U.S. Senate.
The irony is, before the curtain on his act got pulled back by the FBI, Blagojevich somehow got himself elected as an Obama-style reformer, railing against corruption and entrenched power. In fact, Obama himself helped craft Blagojevich’s first campaign in 2002 against the “business as usual” administration of his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, serving as a key adviser along with current Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
How Barack and Rahm could have missed what the guy was all about seems like a mystery now — the gnomish Blagojevich, with his wiglike bob of purplish pimp hair, flat-out looks like a slimeball, or an escapee from a movie about sexually deviant mobsters. Ami indeed, almost immediately upon election, Blagojevich contrived to sell a truly awesome smorgasbord of state jobs and regulatory favors to the highest bidder — everything from contracts for Dunkin’ Donuts franchises at toll oases to a state-parks administrator job allegedly bought with a $1,500 check to Blagojevich’s seven-year-old daughter. The governor even allegedly tried to buy the firing of editors from the Chicago Tribune by offering to help the newspaper’s owners dodge their tax bill on Wrigley Field. “Our recommendation is fire all those fucking people, get ’em the fuck out of there and get us some editorial support,” the governor says on one federal wiretap, channeling the spirit of Richard Nixon.
But the worst stuff comes when Blagojevich almost audibly drools over the prospect of selling Obama’s seat. A Senate seat, the governor is heard saying to one adviser, is a “fucking valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing.” Two days later, it’s more of the same: “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden, and uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” he says. Blagojevich had a whole Christmas list of shit he wanted from Obama’s people in return for a favorable appointment, including a Cabinet position, an ambassadorship, a job for his wife, Patricia, or a $300,000 post with a union-backed group.
Encouragingly, Blagojevich appeal’s not to have gotten anywhere with Obama’s people. He is heard on tape complaining that Obama won’t even consider his offers: “For nothing? Fuck him.” As far as direct contacts between Obama’s and Blagojevich’s camps, all we really know is that the governor and his deputy John Harris on five or six occasions spoke by phone with Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff. In one of the calls, Emanuel reportedly made the case for Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, to which Harris replied that if Blagojevich did pick Jarrett, “all we get in return is appreciation, right?” To which Emanuel, thankfully, said, “Right.”
That the chief of staff of the president-elect of the United States knew enough not to openly buy a Senate appointment on the telephone with a gubernatorial staffer known to be under both state and fed- era] investigation is, I guess, minimally reassuring. But the Blagojevich affidavit is nonetheless a supremely shocking document, even to those of us who already have the lowest of expectations when it comes to American politicians. In the wake of the scandal involving former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman — a similar if smaller-scale mess involving a big-league politician allegedly trolling for cash — the sight of the governor of Illinois feverishly tricking out every last inch of his political body like a sweat-drenched 250-pound North Texas hooker makes one wonder if America’s slide into Third World status is now officially irreversible.
Once the Blago scandal broke, the Democrats had two choices. They could take the political wind out of the scandal’s sails by quietly distancing themselves from the mess and leaving the job of tearing the flesh off f Blagojevich’s body to the appropriate authorities. Or, alternatively, they could stage a prophylactic freakout and organize their own in-house pogrom, using the scandal to make an example of Blagojevich and cast themselves as repulsed by his style of corruption.
About the only strategy that wouldn’t work was to try to do both — and that’s exactly what the Democrats did. They were outfoxed by Blagojevich, who had been arrested in early December under highly entertaining circumstances — dragged out of his home at 6 a.m. in the traditional Slavic-gangster costume of turtleneck and Nike tracksuit, asking authorities, “Is this a joke?” Senate leaders like Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin originally picked the “make an example of Blago” strategy, vowing not to seat anyone nominated by the out-on-bail governor. But then Blago executed a brilliant move, nominating to Obama’s seat a 71-year-old, half-batty egomaniac named Roland Burris, the first black man elected to statewide office in Illinois.
It was hard not to see the evil humor in Blagojevich’s move. Burris is a hilariously-unsuitable candidate even by the extremely low standards of humanity observed in today’s Senate: Not only had he been chosen for office by the most shameless American political crook since Edwin Edwards, he is an over-the-top eccentric who refers to himself in the third person (“If there hadn’t been a Roland Burris, there would not have been a Barack Obama”) and who has already built for himself a mausoleum inscribed with the words TRAILBLAZER. Burris, moreover, pulled an Alexander Haig after his appointment, showing up in Washington on January 6th and brashly claiming office (“I am the junior senator according to every lawbook in the nation”) even as Reid and Durbin barred him from entering the Senate chambers.
Americans were thus treated to the spectacle of two white Democrats physically refusing to open the Senate doors for what would have been the body’s only-black senator. To make matters worse, the Democratic leadership hung its entire case for barring Burris from office on a technicality: His appointment, they insisted, had not been certified by the Illinois secretary of state. When the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Burris appointment was, in fact, legal, Reid and Durbin were left with a face full of omelet just weeks before Obama’s inauguration.
But instead of sticking to their position that the appointment was “tainted,” the Reid-Durbin axis, in typical Democratic Party fashion, blinked. On January 12th, Reid and Durbin announced that Burris was officially the senator-designate from Illinois and would be “accorded all the rights and privileges of a senator-elect.” In the space of just six days, Reid and Durbin managed to fracture a party that had been united in both its excitement over Obama’s inauguration and its disgust toward Blagojevich. In the process, they invited accusations of racism while handing a whopping political victory to a man who is just a few months away from spending the rest of his life playing basketball in the yard at Joliet. And they confirmed that in a fierce political fight, they can be counted on to run in five different directions at the first sign of trouble. All before Barack Obama had spent so much as a day in office.
To allow a craven scum eater like Rod Blagojevich to worm his way into the national political arena at precisely the moment when Barack Obama was supposed to begin restoring the great-power credibility America lost during the Bush years would be an almost unforgivable mistake. But that’s exactly what happened. Because Obama or no Obama, the Democrats are still the Democrats, and there still isn’t any political fight, it would seem, that they can’t find a way to lose.