BBC News

Magazine

Page last updated at 17:38 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

The Windy City buffeted by sleaze

Newspaper headlined "A political crime spree"
The Illinois House has voted to impeach Governor Rod Blagojevich

A POINT OF VIEW

Barack Obama stands for change, but the political arena he's leaving can't seem to escape its corrupt past, says Harold Evans.

To say Chicago is corrupt is to demean the city's historic achievements. Chicago knows how to make corruption entertaining.

The recent juicy revelations about how the city and state are run have been a Godsend for governors and mayors across the country, pretty miserable right now, facing a depressing year of budget cuts. By maintaining its splendid tradition for sleazy political theatre, Chicago has enabled everyone else to feel pretty good about themselves.

Harold Evans

FBI agents had recordings from wiretaps of the Governor Blagojevich expressing indignation about the "bleeping" President-elect

The election to the presidency of the junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, created a vacancy. It was the duty of the Governor, Rodney Blagojevich (call him Blago), to nominate a distinguished citizen who could go and sit at Obama's old desk in the Senate without having to endure the indignity of actually first winning the votes of the citizens.

Straightforward enough except that Blago saw the seat as a valuable thing and he said - when he didn't know he was being taped - you don't just give away a "bleeping" valuable thing for nothing.

So secretly but brazenly he set out to auction it, as he himself puts it, even trying to bargain with the President-elect through Obama's chief of staff about whom he would nominate. And got bleeping nowhere. One of the many extraordinary things indeed about Obama is the cool political skill that enabled him to swim in the Chicago pond for so long without getting wet.

The wire

The carnival began with FBI agents arriving unannounced at the Governor's home at 6am on the eve of Rodney Blagojevich's 52nd birthday. No birthday gifts, just handcuffs and arrest warrants.

They had recordings from wiretaps of the Governor expressing indignation about the "bleeping" President-elect, and also of his First Lady, Patricia Mell, who it turns out has the vocabulary of a fishwife.

The US Attorney who prepared the 76- page indictment - handsome Patrick Fitzgerald, think Eliot Ness in the Al Capone movie The Untouchables - wrote himself some good lines, too: "A political corruption crime spree that would make Lincoln turn over in his grave."

Illinois U.S. Senate appointee Roland Burris after leaving the Capitol Building
Blagojevich's apointee Roland Burris, out in the rain

As Chicago quickly noted, that was a little over-wrought since Lincoln, no stranger to patronage, appointed his campaign manager to the Supreme Court.

Blago was denounced by one and all, and told he had forfeited the right to nominate anyone for Obama's old seat. So, being Blago, he went ahead and named a 71-year-old black buddy, Ronald Burris, a former Attorney General who showed up at the Capitol this week and was sent back out again into the Washington rainfall.

He tried to keep his dignity amid the media circus. "We," he declared under his umbrella, "we are the senator." My bet is that, in the end, he, the unexceptional Ronald Burris (or should I say we) will get sworn in after all.

Presumed guilty

Of course, everyone has had a bash at Blago, or Hot Rob as he is sometimes called: clown, sociopath, crook, any noun you can think of.

Rod Blagojevich behind a sign warning of rats
Trial by media: Rod Blagojevich near his Chicago home

He's a gift to the cartoonists with a flopping mop of hair covering his forehead. When the thatch lifts in the breezes of the Windy City, two words, they say, are tattooed underneath: Bribe Me.

Blago has denied these charges and from time to time in the din of the public excoriation, one faintly hears the chant of sacred words like the murmur of monks in distant cloisters: "Everyone is innocent until proved guilty, everyone is innocent until proved guilty, everyone is innocent..."

But by the time the media and leaky prosecutors have finished with their lurid pre-trial defamations, it'll be hard to find a jury that isn't a lynch mob. This is the Alice in Wonderland way of American justice in high profile cases - sentence first, verdict afterwards.

Mind you, when you see what they are up against in Chicago, you understand the frustrations. Blago came in promising to clean up the mess after his predecessor, Republican Governor George Ryan, had just been sent up the river for six and half years for letting his office sell licenses to unqualified truck drivers - a scandal uncovered during an investigation into a crash that killed six children.

In the past three decades, two other Illinois governors have been convicted, along with one mayor, 27 aldermen, and more than 100 elected officials.

Fourth estate

Newspapers, enjoying the freedom of the First Amendment, are crucial to uncovering much of the wrongdoing. I was in Chicago in 1978 when editor-in-chief Jim Hoge at the Sun-Times invested his company's money in a bar on the Near North Side.

Capone in the white hat, with US Marshals
Al Capone, after his conviction on tax evasion charges

Why? It was a sound investment because it enabled his newspaper to expose rackets run by the city's inspectors. For $10 a fire inspector would ignore exposed electrical wiring, a plumbing inspector would overlook the leaky toilet. The inspectors were photographed with hands out by Sun-Times cameramen posing as repair men; barmaids and bartenders were reporters. The sting operation at the tavern - neatly called The Mirage - got more convictions to add to Chicago's long roll of dishonour.

In fact, there's a splendid tradition of investigative journalism in the city, going spectacularly back to the Prohibition when Al Capone's dollars and tommy guns helped keep William Hale (Big Bill) Thompson in power as Mayor.

Capone carried out the famous St Valentine's Day massacre in Thompson's time in office and Thompson resented the high-minded who thought that as mayor he should do something about all the crime.

Most of all Big Bill hated the buccaneering owner of the Chicago Tribune, Colonel Robert McCormick, who'd won a famous First Amendment victory that every citizen in the United States had a right to criticise the government.

WHAT'S A WARD-HEELER?
Also known as "machine politician"
US term for one who follows at heels of leader or "boss"; unscrupulous or disreputable follower of a professional politician - Oxford English Dictionary

It is a savage irony that the Tribune has been a key player in the unmasking of Blago at a time when its new owner is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He's a California developer called Sam Zell, as profane in public as any ward-heeler, but he seems to have maintained the Colonel's tradition of not knuckling to the bad guys.

On one of the wiretaps, First Lady Patricia Mell, daughter of a powerful aldermen, is heard urging her husband to tell Zell he has to fire the Trib's editorial writers, or the state will prevent Zell from selling the city's baseball team, the Cubs and their home stadium, Wrigley Field.

Well, "urging" does not do justice to the force of her conviction. The Governor, she is recorded as saying, must "hold up that (expletive) Cubs (expletive)... and (expletive) them". Chicagoans are a little touchy about their First Lady's gift for vituperation. One columnist wrote: "How do they think Chicago politicians talk in private when they're muscling the other guy for cash. Like Helen Mirren playing the queen?"

Daley politics

So why are politics in Chicago so corrupt? The politics that breed graft go back to the early years of the 20th Century when more than 12 million bewildered immigrants settled in the big cities.

Chicago Tribune building
The publisher has sought bankruptcy court protection

The Irish arrivals, speaking English, provided leadership for the mass of Russian and Polish Jews, Germans, Italians and Slavs and developed a system of big city machines - political machines - and bosses. A system based on the politics of personal obligation, not political principle.

The bosses did little to limit the overweening power of business, or to challenge the slum landlords. This was a neglect that made them vulnerable to the appeal of the reformers. In New York, Governor Franklin Roosevelt and his ally, the incorruptible mayor of the city, Fiorello La Guardia, put the bosses out of business (with help from the press).

But in Chicago, the system survived, in part due to the mastery of machine politics by long-time Mayor Richard J Daley and now his popular son, the 54th mayor. Aides of the Daleys may have been convicted of corruption but neither father nor son has ever been indicted. And thanks to their prowess, Chicago is today in effect a one-party city - out of 50 alderman, 49 are Democrats.

As for Blago, he's being written off as a crazy, but Tribune columnist John Kass dryly notes that the pundits making such diagnoses have never in their lives talked to a Chicago precinct captain. He writes: "Don't be alarmed when a Chicago machine politician acts like a raving lunatic. It is when they are quiet and reasonable that you've got to worry."


Below is a selection of your comments.

Your story deserves credit for pointing out that some of the best and the worst have come out of Chicago. However, I do not think it is fair to treat the Daley administration as just another part of Illinois corruption. Under Richard I, the city was known as "The City that Works". Under Richard II, there has been a real urban renaissance. It is true that the facade of democracy is thin in places in Chicago. The democratic mayoral primary is the de facto election, and is itself largely uncontested. Our tax structure resembles something you would see in Paris. The city moves forward on projects at a faster pace and with less discourse than you would see in other American cities. This does not mean the city is "sleazy". A major distinction between Mayor Daley and Blagojevich is that interests of the former lie in the city he oversees, not ambition for greater power and wealth. in fact, the Mayor and the Governor have been at odds for years. Daley's ambitions are to be mayor of Chicago, and for the city to be the best in the country. He has been very successful on both counts. If you have never been to Chicago, please come here and see how amazing it is. I moved here 10 years ago from the west coast, and have loved the city ever since.
Mark, Chicago, United States

Chicago is perhaps the worst example of the crazy way in which America's cities and towns are governed. Because local real estate taxes fund local schools and social services, the real estate taxes are very high, forcing the middle class into the suburbs that may have high taxes but with zoning regulations that keep out the poor, and less well educated, good schools. Until this state of affairs changes, and people not dependent on political party favours move back into the city, Chicago will remain the way it is. Sad because it is such a beautiful city with amazing museums.
Constance Blackwell, Former Chicagoean, London

Ironically, 'Blago' means 'rich' in Serbian language, Blagojevich's ethnic origen. He is clearly slightly less rich than he'd allegedly hoped to be after this scandal.
Russell Gordon, Belgrade, Serbia

I note that you have identified one former Governor,George Ryan as a Republican but have not mentioned once that Blago is a Democrat. Is this partisan politics by the BBC?
Greg Sermon, Perth Australia

A brilliant informative, superbly written and witty article. It makes one even prouder of Obama who came through the Chicago system with his integrity deemingly intact.
John Miles,

While this may all seem shocking, I have to say, as an expat, that I LOVE living in Chicago. The streets are clean, the public transit is cheap and far more reliable than anything I've ever experienced living in Britain. They have dozens of free festivals in the summer, which are as safe as they are enjoyable. And while city taxes are a little high (10.5% sales tax), they are far less burdensome than council tax. This is the only place I have lived where things get done, and get done well. Corruption may be a way of life in the political machine, but most citizens don't really care! We live in a city that works, which is more than can be said for a lot of other places. No one here seemed suprised that Blago allegedly tried to sell Obama's seat. Just that he got caught!
JR, Chicago

First, this goes back to even before the Twentieth Century. Chicago was synonymous with corruption long before 1900, and was a byword in books ranging from "The Jungle" to "In His Steps" (Not to mention Sandburg's famous poem). Second, while Chicago may get a lot of attention and a lot of high-profile cases, corruption is found nationwide. Finally, a big step to cut off corruption is to get money out of politics. To take the quote from the above picture in a new context, "If rats can't feed, rats can't breed." If we get money out of the political process and make sure laws against illegal contributions are enforced, much of corruption will be gone.
Orville, Greenville, SC, USA

Having moved to Chicago from the West Coast (and before that, the UK), I had no idea exactly how corrupt the politics were until this year. Illinoisians simply brush off what would have the residents of Seattle or Birmingham hopping mad; most of the lesser corruption barely warrants a footnote in the local media. They are happy enough to get steamed up for a brief period of time when charges are first announced, and then everyone slips back into their malaise as yet another alderman is revealed to be taking bribes or setting up a scheme to benefit certain constituents. Blago's apparant main fault was the sheer audacity of allegedly selling a Senate seat - and that itself probably wasn't terribly surprising to us, given all the lobby groups in the US. It was the fact it came right upon the heady victory of Obama to the presidency that threw everyone back to earth and burst the Chicagoans' bubble: things haven't changed after all. And it's a reminder they don't like but I doubt they will do anything to change.
Heather, Chicago, IL, USA

A wonderful article that adeptly outlines the sublime and ridiculous of our political system. However, you may be a bit overly optimistic to say that Mr Obama has been able to swim in this pond and not get wet.
Alison Matthews, Northfield, IL

Yes , Chicago does dominate Illinois in terms of population and economics , but bear in mind that the two entities are governed under entirely distinct constitutions - Illinois is larger than England . Note also that the 17th Amendment allows any/all State legislatures to permit the State's executive to appoint a stand-in Senator - this power is not a grubby fix private to Illinois .
Andrew Ruddle, Weybridge, UK

Print Sponsor


HAROLD EVANS ARCHIVE
 

Podcast

Download or subscribe to this programme's podcast

Podcast Help




FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC iD

Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific