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A Little Learning: A few comments in defense of the State of Illinois

Published: January 16, 2009
Section: Opinions


the_hoot_1-16-09final_page_03_image_0001In light of the abuse hurled at my native state in the wake of Governor Rod Blagojevich’s arrest last month, I would like to make a few comments in defense of Illinois.

Yes, we are corrupt. The fact is not really debatable. Consider for a moment the city of Chicago; the current Mayor Daley (Richard M., as opposed to his father, Richard J. of 1968 convention fame) has been mayor four months longer than this writer has been alive. One story ought to be sufficient to illuminate Richard M. Daley’s methods: some years ago there was a small airstrip near downtown Chicago named Meigs Field. Mayor Daley was determined to close the airfield, and one night in 2003 he did just that, sending bulldozers by cover of darkness to gouge out an “x” through the landing strip, rendering it unusable.

Not a few in the press condemned the mayor’s thuggish action, but to no avail. Because in Illinois, people care about getting things done.

Does the Daley machine control Chicago politics? Absolutely. Do the employees of the Civil Service (Civil Circus) Department spend their days playing cards and flying paper airplanes (no joke here)? Well, they did once. But do the streets get plowed (not a minor issue in a city where it snowed for 21 hours straight last weekend)? Yes, the streets get plowed. Yes, the garbage gets picked up. The city runs. And are most people willing to tolerate a bit of corruption for that result? Again, yes.

Now an amusing tale of Illinois corruption for you. In the early 1970s a gentleman named Paul Powell was the Illinois Secretary of State. In Illinois, the Secretary of State is responsible for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Every time you need to renew your driver’s license, you must pay a fee, with the result that large amounts of money pass through the Secretary of State’s office (this should explain the Licenses for Bribes scandal that brought down former Governor George Ryan for his actions as Secretary of State).

Anyway, when Paul Powell was Secretary of State, all fees had to be paid by check, and the clerks instructed you to make the check out to Paul Powell.

Now suppose every day thousands of people were making checks out to you? Powell died in office, and under his bed and in his closets were discovered hundreds of shoe boxes filled with uncashed checks made out to Paul Powell.

As an Illinoisan, I hope you’ll excuse me for admiring the man’s moxie. Indeed, for many years afterward cars could be seen with a bumper sticker saying “I gave to Paul Powell.”

But back to Rod Blagojevich. When the Illinois General Assembly voted to impeach on Friday, they did so for a number of reasons. Yes they wanted to punish the Governor for attempting to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat. And for interfering with the freedom of the press. And for trying to shake-down Children’s Memorial Hospital.

But this is only part of the story. After all, George Ryan’s wife went around to state employees during their lunch hour demanding kick-backs. No, for those versed in the Illinois school of politics, Blagojevich’s sins were much worse.

First, he was sloppy. Daring the FBI to tap your phones – now that takes a bit of hubris. Second, the state simply failed to function: it didn’t run. Budgets came in perennially late; the governor barely spoke with dozens of other state officials. It took a lot for Rod Blagojevich to enter this scandal with a 13% approval rating.

How did things degenerate this way? I think I can answer that question the same way the governor does, with poetry.

In his now famous press conference, Blagojevich quoted the opening lings of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” though I think a later couplet says more about the Governor’s state of mind. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,/ Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,” Kipling proclaims in the last stanza.

As the transcripts released by Patrick Fitzgerald reveal, Blagojevich had long since become a king in his own mind, convinced his could manipulate any situation to his own advantage.

Yes, Illinois is corrupt. But Rod Blagojevich was delusional.