Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

December 10, 2008

THE ETHICS BILL THAT STARTED IT ALL.... Federal investigators have been focused on Rod Blagojevich for several years, but it was a deeply ironic series of events three months ago that led to yesterday's dramatic fall.

In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama's rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

Mr. Obama placed the call to his political mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate. Mr. Jones was a critic of the legislation, which sought to curb the influence of money in politics, as was Mr. Blagojevich, who had vetoed it. But after the call from Mr. Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law's restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.

Tipped off to Mr. Blagojevich's efforts, federal agents obtained wiretaps for his phones and eventually overheard what they say was scheming by the governor to profit from his appointment of a successor to the United States Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama. One official whose name has long been mentioned in Chicago political circles as a potential successor is Mr. Jones, a machine politician who was viewed as a roadblock to ethics reform but is friendly with Mr. Obama.

So, in an indirect way, Blagojevich's fiasco may not have come to pass were it not for Obama's commitment to ethics reform. Once Obama intervened and the bill became law, Blagojevich had to scramble to collect as many campaign contributions as possible before the law took effect. The governor's efforts garnered the attention of federal investigators, who in turn tapped Blagojevich's phone, which in turn produced stunning evidence of brazen corruption.

Noting all of this, the New York Times' Mike Mcintire and Jeff Zeleny report that Obama's intervention on the ethics issues "was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics."

Really? Because when I read the article, it seemed like a reminder that despite his busy presidential campaign schedule, Obama has never quite given up on his commitment to ethics reform, especially in Illinois politics.

McIntire and Zeleny seem to have the right anecdote but have drawn the wrong conclusion. As Will Bunch noted, "Did it occur to them that maybe Obama was elected 44th president of the United States exactly because he HAS escaped 'the murky and insular world of Illinois politics'?"

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (24)

Bookmark and Share

No, it didn't.

What fun would that have been? Sounds like we are back to Clinton Rules.

Posted by: wvng on December 10, 2008 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

Without refreshing my memory with some research on this, I recall that the Republicans were putting a great deal of pressure on Obama to make the phone call to Sen. Emil Jones to get the vote going on the veto override. The political pressure was high. There is a question about whether Obama really wanted any part of this.

Posted by: lou on December 10, 2008 at 8:17 AM | PERMALINK

The conclusion is workable, CB, if you realize that in order to wage war against that "murky and insular world of Illinois politics", you must first walk into its cave, grab it by the throat, and drag it out into the glaring light of transparency.

The more I read about this, the more it seems to me that THAT is exactly what happened in Chicago --- and it should leave the Bushists quaking in their faux jackboots, as they scramble for anything resembling a lifeboat....

Posted by: Steve W. on December 10, 2008 at 8:19 AM | PERMALINK

"Did it occur to them . . ."
Make that a macro; you'll be using it a lot. This may not be a New Age, but there is definitely a shift, like the one we're seeing reproduced in "Mad Men", where we look at these people and wonder if they realize that the 60's are about to happen to them.
Or rather, it's like vaudevillians looking at their first sound picture and reassuring themselves that people will always want live theater--only these guys are certain that four years at Brown and not a moment's more thought will be enough to set themselves up for life.

Posted by: Steve Paradis on December 10, 2008 at 8:23 AM | PERMALINK

wvng@1 nails it.Clinton rules and no honeymoon for Obama.

Posted by: par4 on December 10, 2008 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

By printing this article, the New York Times demonstrates that it has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics.

Posted by: Chris S. on December 10, 2008 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

This is not really "ironic", is it?

If it had been an ethics bill that Blagojevich himself had championed, that would be ironic.

Posted by: Brock on December 10, 2008 at 8:41 AM | PERMALINK

Thank god for the adversarial role of the press. The Tribune has been on Blago's case from the get go. You can try to define what the spark was that finally downed Blago yesterday, but the continued sunshine put out by the press has been hugely important in keeping the pressure on the prosecutors in protecting the citizens of IL.

Posted by: lou on December 10, 2008 at 8:44 AM | PERMALINK

Wait, what blog am I on? Is it Washington Monthly or Washington Gossip?

Posted by: annjell on December 10, 2008 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

That McIntire and Zeleny draw the wrong conclusion is to be expected. The correct conclusion doesn't sell newspapers. Right now selling newspapers is more important than ever.

Give all that I have read it seems that the Blago case is a shot across the bow of every politician in America. We are no longer doing business as usual. Good for Fitz and if, as I suspect, Rahm Emanuel had a hand in pushing this, good for Team Obama. The Trib should be patted on the back as well.

Posted by: Ron Byers on December 10, 2008 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

But, will this be the end of Chicago? Two years ago, a couple from Chicago moved next door to us in Portland, OR. One of the first questions from the fellow concerned how much we had to "piece off" the trash collector. He spoke highly of the Chicago system of "Pieceing Everyone Off". He bragged that if you wanted anything done in Chicago, you would simply "piece off".

A top LA trial lawyer once told me about his growing up on the South side of Chicago - Got into a fracas at 15 - When, he and his lawyer went into the Judges's Chambers to settle his case, he said the Judge listened to both sides, then said "Well, one side has said what's in it for them, the other has said what's in it for their side, but, no one has said what's in it for Me."

Posted by: berttheclock on December 10, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

To support my earlier post, I copy this link to an article that was written at the time. To repeat, Obama was encountering a great deal of political pressure to step in and act. His deliberation raised some serious doubts about just how much he really wanted to address the mess, debating whether to maintain the safe position of his "escape" from the murk or to show some political leadership and risk more national scrutiny of his relationships in IL politics.

"Obama ducks call to push reform in Illinois"

Posted by: lou on December 10, 2008 at 9:14 AM | PERMALINK

This story deserves much caution! Illinois politics has as many political shoes to drop as Imelda has in her collection! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on December 10, 2008 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK
wvng@1 nails it.Clinton rules and no honeymoon for Obama.

Well, that may be how the Villagers see it.

Me? And most of my friends?
We haven't even finished the toast yet, much less started shedding clothing.
Consummation comes on 20 January, 2009.
We'll let you know when we're ready to start thinking about putting some clothes back on.
Then it's umbrella drinks by the pool for a while.

Don't hold your breath - it's been a gawdawful long 2,882 days.

Posted by: kenga on December 10, 2008 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

Adding to the irony of the media, Michael Isikoff was on Countdown (I think that's where I saw it) last night. He was speculating about "Candidate 5", who allegedly offered a half million for Obama's Senate seat. Several have speculated it was Jesse Jackson Jr., but Isikoff suggested it may be more likely it was Emil Jones, since he had enough money to pay for the bribe.

Posted by: Danp on December 10, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK


Interesting link but I'm not sure about your premise. It seems the "top government watchdog group that worked closely with Obama during his Springfield years" was calling on Obama to pull some strings back on his old stomping grounds. Let's put into context Obama's perceived hesitation and the local GOP response. Of course the GOP wouldn't miss taking a shot at Obama less than 8 weeks before election day. Accusing him of all talk and no action was one of their mantras. Further, he was crossing over his "jurisdiction" by involving himself again in the affairs of the state legislature, and may have wanted to be extra cautious. Besides that, unless the Suntimes was wiretapping Obama's blackberry, how do they know he wasn't communicating to get the legislation passed?

Posted by: palinoscopy on December 10, 2008 at 9:47 AM | PERMALINK

Several have speculated it was Jesse Jackson Jr., but Isikoff suggested it may be more likely it was Emil Jones, since he had enough money to pay for the bribe.

The complaint also states that Blajogevic allegedly wanted the money up front because he had been double-crossed by # 5 in the past. If the choices are limited to Jones and Jackson, I think Jackson might have been the only one to double-cross Blagojevic in the past. We'll find out in due course...

Posted by: DJ on December 10, 2008 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

If the choices are limited to Jones and Jackson, I think Jackson might have been the only one to double-cross Blagojevic in the past.

But doesn't the linked article specifically mention that Jones switched his vote on the ethics reform bill to stop "pay to play," at Obama's urging, which led to the override of Blago's veto? That would seem to qualify as a double-cross.

Posted by: Tim on December 10, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

My premise was to question the central premise of the post attributing much of the spark in getting Blago to Obama's role in calling Emil Jones. I don't think Obama rode voluntarily into this deal on a white horse. He was partly drug into it by actions of political interest groups and the opposition party. The system was working in the muddled, partisan manner that is typical.

He was a US senator representing IL. Senators communicate their wishes all the time to their state legislatures and vice versa. This was part of Senator Obama's jurisdiction. Senator Durbin just injected himself into this mess by calling for the state legislature to act by legislating a special election to replace Obama.

Posted by: lou on December 10, 2008 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

Pasage of an ethics bill intended to prevent corruption leading to the criminal prosecution of a corrupt politician is not irony. Ironoy is, well, something else.

Posted by: arthur on December 10, 2008 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

Yes, Candidate 5 is Jones, the man Blago thought might fork out up to $1Mil for the seat. There's the irony... either that he wasn't as buyable as Blago thought,


That Emil Jones might have been playing both sides against the middle.

Some ambassadorship waiting for HIM and not Blago, perhaps?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on December 10, 2008 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK


The only statement the story makes is that

"Obama's campaign refused to tell the Sun-Times whether the senator supports either version. And a spokesman ducked questions on whether Obama would speak with Jones, as Canary suggested."

Just because Obama elects not to tell the Sun-Times anything and the paper frames it as "ducking" the issue, doesn't mean that Obama had to be dragged into making the call to Jones. That's your interpretation.

Obama often elects not to tell the media everything they want to hear. Get used to it.

Posted by: bdop4 on December 10, 2008 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

I love the fact that everyone throughout the country has suddenly become an expert on Illinois politics. Let me tell you something: I am in Illinois. I live this garbage on a daily basis. And I will tell you that Obama WAS dragged into this completely against his will. If you wish to believe that Obama is somehow some stalwart of ethics reform, you can believe in fairy tales if you wish. I have a long list of political alliances and outright endorsements that call BS on your beliefs, though. And the list begins with Obama's endorsement of Gov. Blagojevich in 2006 – when it was already well known throughout the state that Blago was a crook. Why was he re-elected, then, you might ask? Well, that just goes to show how little you actually know about Illinois politics.

Posted by: JB on December 10, 2008 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

But, but, but, but the NYT's is a liberal rag, in the tank for Obama, isn't it?

BTW, ABC is reporting that JJ,Jr was Candidate No. 5 and the money was to come from "supporters," not JJ,Jr. himself. He's been asked to "come in" to "help with the investigation" but has been told he is not "a target."

Posted by: Cal Gal on December 10, 2008 at 1:30 PM | PERMALINK



Read Jonathan Rowe remembrance and articles
Email Newsletter icon, E-mail Newsletter icon, Email List icon, E-mail List icon Sign up for Free News & Updates

Advertise in WM

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly