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Commentary: Blagojevich: Did the anticipation of power corrupt?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2009 - Those of us who have advocated for long-range planning in state government certainly did not contemplate the kind in which Rod Blagojevich allegedly engaged.

He is charged by a federal grand jury with plotting shakedowns as he was shaking hands. While still a candidate in 2002, he and his cohorts were scheming to extort millions from companies, non-profits and individuals seeking his administration's favor and to divide the booty after he left office, according to an anticipated yet stunning indictment.

If convicted of this felonious foresight, the only impeached governor in Illinois history also will go down as the state's most corrupt and cynical officeholder - a particularly damning distinction given all the others who have violated the public trust.

Usually the sense of entitlement takes hold insidiously and subtly.

No one has suggested Otto Kerner, a former U.S. attorney, was on the make before he entered the Executive Mansion in 1961. It was years later he purchased race track stock at a bargain rate from a track owner seeking preferential treatment from a Kerner-appointed board.

Although George Ryan was groomed by a Kankakee County clique that wielded clout in ways not found in good-government manuals, he served 14 years as House speaker, lieutenant governor and secretary of state before prosecutors concluded he had crossed the line.

William J. Scott had been attorney general a dozen years and earned accolades through the '60s and '70s for championing the environment, protecting consumers and overseeing a professional operation before his ex-wife helped prosecutors imprison him for tax evasion based on evidence his net worth significantly exceeded what he could have accumulated through his above-board earnings.

Most of the state's high-profile miscreants wielded substantial power for a while before criminally abusing it. They actually helped their constituents before they betrayed them. They allowed themselves to become intoxicated by the rarified air of high office before polluting it.

Security details and others see to it that governors and other statewide officials get through winter without chipping ice off a windshield or summer without entering an oven of an automobile. The officials can avoid long lines and lost luggage by utilizing the state's air fleet. Although the perks can be justified for those whose lives are threatened and who are expected to make frequent appearances in every region of a large state, they cannot help but skew perspective.

Additionally, those same officials are courted more than they are challenged, even by people who may privately disrespect and despise them. If they are so inclined, they or their henchmen can intimidate with impunity because their targets fear reprisal if they complain to law enforcers.

The Blagojevich scandal has prompted calls for such reforms as protecting whistle blowers, diminishing the influence of money in politics and purifying the state purchasing process. But structural change cannot fully address the creeping corruption that can exploit character fault lines. No individual is perfect, nor is any administration. Honorable politicians are particularly vulnerable to the arrogance of incorruptibility.

The right kind of elected official will recognize the potential for corrosion. He or she will recruit, respect and heed aides and other associates who speak truth and integrity to power. We have had - and still have - such public officials, aides and associates. But we need more.

We also need citizens who value honest government more than a plowed street - citizens who resist the cynicism that permits them to tag all politicians as corrupt and avoid the homework that helps distinguish between the fakers and the true public servants.

Mike Lawrence retired Nov. 1, 2008, as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. He is returning to his journalism roots as a twice-monthly columnist.

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