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?