A Sad Reminder from Illinois:”Money is the mother’s milk of politics”

By James M. Wall

Listening to the 59 Illinois state senators solemnly repeat their “yes” vote to remove Governor Rod Blagojevich  from office, one had to wonder: How many of them thought, “there but for the grace of God go I”?

Everyone of those senators got to their senate seats in Springfield by raising money, some of which came from $25 checks from the average vote.

But most of the money that lifted those senators up the political ladder came from persons of wealth, lobbyists, contractors, lawyers, and other citizens who had something other than “good government” on their minds when they wrote out their checks.

Jesse Unruh, Speaker of the California Assembly from 1961 to 1968, is credited with coining the phrase,  “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”  Every office holder or aspiring office holder in every state in the union knows this is true.

They also know, or should know, that a mother’s milk can be poisoned by toxins consumed by the mother.  The more money required to be elected, the greater the danger that toxins will find their way into our political bloodstream.

As both local and national media piled on in their self-righteous glee over the destruction of  Blagojevich , they also knew that this man’s demise says more about money in politics than it does about one governor disgrace.

The late Illinois Senator Paul Simon once wrote:

Over and over on the Senate floor, I see the process that should be serving the public being twisted to serve those who contribute to our campaigns.  The public senses this. Their perception is of people donating money that buys votes in Congress or contracts and appointments from the executive branch.  The practice usually is not that crude or direct, but too often the net effect is about the same.

This is not a new phenomenon.  In his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon wrote more than two centuries ago:  “The wisdom and authority of the legislator are seldom victorious in a contest with the vigilant dexterity of private interest.” He wrote of ancient Rome, but he might well be speaking of modern America. . . .

US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has been on Blagojevich ‘s trail since at least the summer of 2006, three years after the governor was first sworn into office in 2003.  Five months before the people of Illinois reelected their governor, in November, 2006, Fitzgerald declared he had witnesses to “very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud” in the Blagojevich administration.

So who is to blame for his downfall?  He is, of course, but along the way he got help down the slippery slope of disgrace and failure.  The lobbyists helped him; the lawyers helped him; the corporate executives helped him; the labor unions helped him. And above all, the voters helped him. The people of Illinois were warned, but they still reelected this charming man with the head of hair Ronald Reagan would have envied.

How poorly or illegally Blagojevich  used his office remains to be revealed in court. Fitzgerald’s case against the former governor is moving through the legal system. Fitzgerald may be able to prove to a jury that what the governor did was not only a misuse of the system but a series of illegal acts. If this happens he will be punished.

What about the rest of us, the office holders, the politicians, the political volunteers, the media, the voters?  Will we have learned anything about the toxic nature of our current system of funding campaigns?

In his 1998 book, We Can Do Better: How to Save America’s Future-An Open Letter to President Clinton, Paul Simon testified to the temptation facing every politician at the nexus of money and politics:

I voted with you [President Clinton] on the North American Free Trade Agreement, widely known as NAFTA. I started the process uncertain as to how I would vote, reading all I could, finally coming to the conclusion that it would create jobs and serve the nation’s interest. After going through the studies by various groups, I decided that it was not even a close call.

For the cause of this nation’s working men and women, for our economic future, and for the cause of better relations with our neighbors, I supported NAFTA. But my long-time friends in the labor movement were not happy, and one respected official told a small gathering that I had been the recipient of more than $600,000 in contributions from them in the last election. He implied clearly that I had been bought and paid for and that there was something unethical about my voting against those who had been so generous to my campaign.

This system affects all of us. I have never made a promise involving my official duties in return for a campaign contribution. But if I arrive home late at night or at a hotel in Chicago at midnight and there are twenty phone calls waiting, nineteen of them from people whose names I do not recognize, the twentieth from someone who gave me a $1,000 campaign contribution, at midnight I will not make twenty phone calls, but I might make one. Which one will I make?


About wallwritings

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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5 Responses to A Sad Reminder from Illinois:”Money is the mother’s milk of politics”

  1. Cotton Fite says:

    Jim, I don’t think I share your sympathy for Rod. There is a great distance between Paul Simon’s selection of calls to make from the 20 he found when he arrived at his hotel room late at night and Rod’s seemingly transparent exchange of signing a bill for a political contribution.

    I have no question that politics is filled with such temptations and that Rod is neither the first nor last to succumb to such. But he does seem to excel in the practice, doesn’t he. Yes, he was pursued vigorously by Fitzpatrick, but that just describes Rod as stupid or arrogan.

    Your reminder of the way we citizens have gone along with Rod despite earlier evidence of his “style” of governing echoes the Chicago Tribune’s editorial this morning. Rod is out of office, but will we have learned anything and changed our ways? Doubtful.

    Cotton

  2. wallwritings says:

    Cotton reaches a bit to compare Simon’s phone calls with Rod’s trading money for signing a bill, if indeed, that is what happened (still unproven). However, I fail to see the “great distance” between Simon and Rod when it came to trading votes.

    As is well known in Chicago politics, Simon was simon pure in most things political, but he was very much beholden to the Israel Lobby from start to finish in his political career. Knowing him as well as I did, I doubt that he ever fully understood that an automatic vote for Israel’s policies regardless of the impact on the Palestinian community was exactly the same as trading votes for hard cash. Paul’s belief in what he thought was the “righteousness” of Israel’s cause closed his eyes to the realities of the situation there.

    Rod may well have persuaded himself that he was serving families in need and if it took cutting a few corners, in his mind, so be it. Self-delusion is a great danger to us all, and especially to persons who hold power over the lives of others. Trading a favor, a vote in Congress, or a contract, its all a matter of degree.

    None of this changes the basic thrust of my posting above. Simon was correct in his reading of what money does to politicians. He spoke out on campaign financing when few politicians were willing to do so. Unfortunately, on the matter of Israel and Palestine, Simon’s Zionist passions blinded him from seeing the mote in his own eye.

    Jim Wall

  3. Pauline Coffman says:

    Jim, Your blog on Blago and Simon emphasizes the role of money in getting elected and staying in office. This should push us again in the direction of campaign financing reform; however, Obama’s success in raising so much more money than anyone ever before is being praised as grassroots contributions from those who really wanted change. Is it possible to conceive of our political system surviving without campaign contributions?

  4. Cotton Fite says:

    No argument, Jim, that money is a persuasive factor in politics, as it is in every other realm of life. We are all seduced to some degree by the seductive pursuit of money (I speak for myself). As Pauline observes, it is magnified in politics because of its importance in furthering the career – and the opportunity for service – of every aspiring politician. Our President just collected it better than anyone has to this date – and we applaud the result. Coming back to Rod, the evidence at least suggests that he used his executive power (signing a bill) to coerce political contributions. But you’re right, that has not yet been proven.
    As for our much honored Paul Simon, he was apparently persuaded by AIPAC to vote consistently in support of whatever Israel wanted to do, a position we can regret. But that was no ethical violation and I doubt was the result of campaign contributions.
    Blessings, Cotton

  5. Harris Fawell says:

    I don’t know how one can fight the power of campaign contributions. It certainly was the bane of my political life. And now political contributions to the party in Washington counts in determining chairmanships in Congress. Certainly, I believe that lobbyists should be barred from having any connection – direct or indirect- to political contributions under dictate of felony law. But nevertheless the power of political contributions is immense. Harris Fawell

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