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When Sleaze No Longer Startles

I suppose it’s better than going to jail.  But I wouldn’t be very proud of a non-conviction based on my lawyer’s reasoning that it’s not criminal for a public official to be a crude and self-serving idiot or that, as a hold-out juror seemed to believe, the ex-governor shouldn’t be singled out for sleazy deal-making because, after all,  “that’s what politicians do.”  Is the bar really that low?  Chicago is an entertaining place in the summer – an endless array of weekend festivals, music, arts, lovely walks in the parks and along the lake and, from the crowds of happy folk on the Red Line trains, plenty of people who still seem to enjoy the hapless Cubs.  But this summer’s real entertainment was the Rod Blogojevich trial.

The theater being played out at the Federal Court House lacked only gravitas.  The upbeat former governor, accompanied by his wife and young daughter, entertained the curious in the court house with breezy claims to innocence and a jauntiness suggesting that the seriousness of the proceedings hadn’t quite sunk in.  Testimony, including lengthy tapes of the governor himself, revealed a cavalier attitude toward the public trust that was breathtaking.  And then, of course, there were the wardrobe revelations and the obvious analysis of how it was actually possible to spend $400,000 on clothes in seven years!  The only real disappointment was the decision to not have the ex-governor testify in his own defense.  Oh, the entertainment we missed.

Legal scholars will debate the wisdom of the prosecution’s strategy or the challenging complexity of the judge’s instructions to the jury or the reasoning of the jurors who found themselves unable to render a verdict on all but one count.  It may well be that on re-trial the former governor will be found guilty of some of the charges he may have dodged with the help of a single juror out of twelve.  It may also be the case that he is never found guilty of a charge other than the single secondary conviction for lying to the FBI.  For now, the question of his culpability in corruption remains open, at least in the legal sense.

But perhaps most disturbing is what this episode, and others this summer, reveals about the expectations the American public has for its political leaders and the political process.  The fact that we seem to be more amused than outraged by this spectacle begs the question of whether we have grown so accepting of a self-serving political system that we are more startled by integrity than corruption.  Think what we have witnessed over the past months.  During the horse-trading that went on in the midst of the health care reform debate, key early Senate votes were essentially bought by concessions that amounted to little more than special deals for senators’ states.  So comfortable were they with this way of doing business that no one made much effort even to disguise these, at best, questionable political pay-offs.  The fact that later negotiations voided many of them doesn’t make this kind of governance any less distasteful.

Two powerful House Democrats await trial this fall before the House ethics committee and while one case may involve conflicting interpretations of ethical rules or lapses in judgment, the other includes clear ethical violations and tax evasion that should be obvious to anyone, let alone the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.  In late August, the flagging primary campaign of a candidate for the governorship of New York received a boost not when people suddenly began to discover gifts for statesmanship heretofore unnoticed, but when the candidate jumped into the fray over the proposed Islamic Center to be built near Ground Zero, joining Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich in blatant, bare-knuckled political pandering to bigotry and xenophobia.  What made this even more deplorable was the decision of one of the venerable opponents of prejudice and discrimination, the Anti-Defamation League, to excuse bigotry in this instance ostensibly in deference to the sensitivity of the victims, some of whom by the way, were Muslim, and many of whom support the building of the Center.

The Rod Blagojevich circus is not just comic relief in the midst of a summer of grim news on the economy, the Gulf oil spill, and Afghanistan.  It’s a symptom of an infection in our public life where jurors, voters, or even just plain ordinary citizens seem to have come to expect little in the way of decency and integrity in our public officials.  This is sad for two reasons.  First, it unfairly tars the vast majority of people in public life who do see the broad public interest as their first and primary responsibility.  Second, it encourages a culture of corruption that renders government impotent in the face of the enormous economic, social, and political challenges facing us.  The real tragedy of the Blagojevich scandal doesn’t hinge on whether he is ever found guilty in court.  The real tragedy is that, for so many, it has been a source of laughter rather than tears.

John H. Thomas

John Thomas will be leading Advent Lectionary Workshops at three locations in Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan in September and October. Learn more about the workshops and register today!

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