…to screw in a lightbulb? Two. One to screw it in and one to screw it up and face criminal charges. Okay, I admit that's a bad joke, but not as bad as what’s going on in my home state of Illinois today.
I was shocked to wake up to the news that Illinois Governor Rod R. Blagojevich was arrested by FBI agents this morning and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud as well as solicitation of bribery. Among the many charges he faces in the alleged criminal conspiracy is attempting to “sell” the Illinois senate seat vacated by President-Elect Obama. Innocent until proven guilty, I know, but it doesn’t look good for the Democratic governor who was my classmate at Northwestern University in the late 1970s. Yikes, has any other state governorship produced more scandals? They might as well build a tunnel from the governor’s mansion to the nearest federal prison.
Let’s review: Blagojevich’s predecessor, Governor George Ryan, is currently serving a six-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana for racketeering and widespread corruption. Ryan’s predecessor, Governor Jim Edgar, faced federal scrutiny when his largest campaign contributor was given a “sweetheart contract” that cost Illinois taxpayers around 20 million dollars in fraudulent overcharges. Edgar was also criticized when he proclaimed March 13, 1991, L. Ron Hubbard Day in Illinois in honor of the founder of Scientology. Dan Walker, who was governor when I was in high school, was sentenced to seven years after he left office following a Savings & Loan scandal. In January 2001 Walker requested a pardon from outgoing President Clinton but was denied. When I was a kid, Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., was convicted of 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, and perjury and did time in the slammer. The list goes on. What is it about politics in Illinois that breeds corruption?
Oh, I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush, I’m sure there were plenty of good guys, too. The state’s first governor, Shadrach Bond, put a stop to the use of the whipping post and the pillory for misdemeanors. Bond raised funds for the state’s first penitentiary. He never would have believed how many of his successors would be calling it home. Governor Edward Coles, who served in the 1820s, was an anti-slavery activist who ran for governor to repel efforts to turn Illinois into a slave state. Governor August French eliminated the state’s huge debt by the end of his administration in 1853. Governor John Palmer, in the late 1800s, had the distinction of switching political parties six times during his career. “I had my own views. I was not a slave of any party,” he said. “I thought for myself and have spoken my own words on all occasions.”
Governor Joseph Fifer supported women’s rights and lived to see his daughter Florence Fifer Bohrer become the first female State Senator of Illinois in 1924. Governor John Riley Tanner was a strong advocate of workers’ rights, as was his predecessor, Governor John Altgeld, and he refused to send in troops to break strikes. “The laboring man’s only property is the right to labor, which is as dear to him as the capitalist’s millions,” Tanner proclaimed, “and he has the same right to carry arms in defense of his property as the capitalist has to protect his millions.” Governor Edward Dunne founded an organization called the National Unity Council to fight the popular Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Governor Dwight Green fought to remove the stranglehold that Al Capone and other organized crime figures had on the state during the 1930s.
I guess our state’s most famous governor was Adlai Stevenson II who was probably the most liberal and the most intellectual of all Illinois governors. Stevenson ran for President in 1952 and 1956 and was known for his wry sense of humor. During one of his presidential campaigns, a supporter said that he was sure to “get the vote of every thinking man” in the United States, to which Stevenson replied, “Thank you, but I need a majority to win.” My memories of Adlai Stevenson are as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the 1960s. And every Jewish kid who grew up in Chicago was familiar with the name of Henry Horner, the state’s first Jewish governor. Illinois became the first state to have two Jewish governors in 1968 when Samuel Shapiro took office.
I mostly remember James Thompson, the longest-serving governor of the state (1977-1991) and think of him whenever I look at the beautiful antique breakfront in my house because I bought it at an antique store in Chicago from under the nose of Governor Thompson’s wife who was also interested in the piece. Perhaps the breakfront would have been happier in the governor’s mansion but I’m thrilled to have it even though every mover I’ve ever hired asked me not to call them again after shlepping the insanely heavy piece of furniture. Long after leaving public office, Thompson served on the 9/11 Commission and made a name for himself with his brutal questioning of Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council.
Who knows what will happen to Rod Blagojevich, who used to talk about his presidential aspirations and was considering appointing himself to Obama’s senate seat with his future in national politics in mind. Even if he’s acquitted of these latest charges, I think it’s safe to say that his political career is kaput. Tomorrow is Blagojevich’s 52nd birthday. What a present he received from the Feds. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said this morning that Blagojevich’s activities represented “a new low” and that after placing taps on the governor’s home and office phones, even seasoned investigators were “stunned” by what they heard on the tapes.