Illinois has, sadly, a well-known reputation for corruption in politics, but although I have family in Chicago, I've never really had occasion to think about how much of that reputation is well-earned and how much is just talk. Perhaps I was naïve to be surprised when I learned yesterday of the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges. I was even more surprised (naïveté again?) by learning (from the same article linked above) that the former governor of Illinois, the man defeated by Blagojevich himself, we jailed three years after leaving office on a corruption conviction himself.
Anyone who's followed politics since Richard Nixon has an idea for just how high the burden of proof is to convict a politician of corruption. Most of us believe on some level that it's going on, but very few politicians ever face serious charges, much less jail time (at least, proportionate to the number of politicians out there). When an actual arrest is made, it's a big deal, because everyone knows that if they're wrong, or the charges don't stick, the politician has the power to make life very uncomfortable for those who sought to convict him.
Given all the talk about Blagojevich's apparent efforts to sell President-elect Obama's open Senate seat, I found myself reflecting on the classic movie, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the midst of all this. I reviewed the movie after watching it for the first time just this past February. You can click the link for my thoughts then, but it occurred to me that there are some basic parallels between the set-up of that movie and what's happening with Blagojevich. A senate seat has opened up, so the governor has to make an appointment. The governor seeks to appoint someone that will further his own unsavory goals.
Of course, once the governor in Mr. Smith appoints Jefferson Smith, he pretty much fades out of the movie, which focuses instead on the real corrupt power broker, Jim Taylor, for whom the governor is a mere pawn. I don't see any evidence that Blagojevich is anyone's pawn. He's much more like Taylor in this analogy, except Blagojevich didn't have to attempt to go through any middle-man to get his desired senator into position.
But, just as Taylor's efforts were thwarted when Smith turned out to be a man of higher ideals and integrity than previously expected, Blagojevich will now almost certainly be unable to realize his political or monetary ambitions (pending the outcome of whatever trial awaits him). One can only hope that, whoever ends up becoming the junior senator of Illinois when all this dust settles, he or she will be able to rise above the culture of corruption as well as Jefferson Smith proved able to.