The same forces shaped Obama and Blagojevich, Scott Simon says
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 6, 2009 - How could the same political culture breed both Barack Obama and Rod Blagojevich?
Scott Simon of National Public Radio says that the special crucible that is Chicago politics is not so much an ideology as it is a state of mind, a pragmatic view of the world that shaped the careers of both the disgraced former Illinois governor and the pioneering president.
Both men, he said Monday night at the James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture at Saint Louis University, fit the mold: "A clear-eyed, steel-spined Chicago pol." His topic for the evening was "The Illinois Paradox: The Politics of Greed and Hope."
Just because their careers sprang from the same background, though, does not mean they were destined to follow identical moral paths, Simon said. In a state that is "so marvelous that our governors make the license plates," Blagojevich has shown a brand of nerve that stands out.
"The people of Illinois voted for Rod Blagojevich twice," Simon said. "They didn't think they were voting for Dag Hammarskjold."
The contrast between the ousted governor and the new president may be sharpest when it comes to money. Simon noted that while wiretaps of Blagojevich's conversations of how he could use his position to raise cash were shocking, Obama's success in bringing in campaign funds may have more lasting influence, because it may have truly changed the game for a long time to come.
Since he learned his politics on the streets of Chicago, Simon said, Obama wasn't about to be outspent or outmaneuvered in his campaign for president. When he weighed the limitations that came with accepting matching funds, he decided he was better off building up his own war chest.
"He was not going to go into a gunfight with a cap pistol," Simon said. "He's not a Massachusetts liberal. He wasn't going to be Dukakis-ed."
But because he was able to raise half a billion dollars on his own, without the strictures that federal campaign finance laws would have placed on his ability to amass the money he needed, reform is doomed for the foreseeable future.
"Obama is not a reformer," he said. "He is a political liberal, a happy member of the Democratic establishment who cared more about winning elections than reforming the system."
He wasn't worried about the proverbial level playing field when it comes to campaign cash, Simon said, adding: "A level playing field is for baseball. The last thing politicians want is a level playing field. They want to win."
As far as Blagojevich goes, Simon noted that when he was forced out of office, there seemed to be just one place that would have him.
"I've deceived the people and embarrassed my family," he envisioned the former governor saying. "What else could I do? I know. I'll go on radio."
The Millstone lecture is given in memory of the late former longtime journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to perpetuate interest in his journalistic passions. It was co-sponsored by the St. Louis Beacon, the Saint Louis University School of Law and 90.7 KWMU-FM.