Category Archives: political scandal

I THINK … the death of Dan Rostenkowski takes away one of the great political characters.

With the death of Dan Rostenkowski, or Rosty, as many of us knew him, a giant of a man has left the political stage. That can be said both figuratively and literally. The six foot, four inch former chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee towered over most members of congress in stature and in power. He was known around the congressional campus only as “Mr. Chairman” of “THE Chairman.” Even though there are scores of members of Congress with that title, anyone who was anyone knew who “Mr. Chairman” was. That’s power.

I have known Rosty long before he was called by title only. But even in his pre-Ways and Means chairmanship days, he was a formidable member of congress. Lots of congressmen get into fights over legislation, but Rosty was one of the few that could step in and settle them.

He was an old style Chicago Machine politician, as was his father. He had a gruff ward heeler demeaner at home, but could hold his own with any President or head-of-state passing through Washington. He was a laborite, but with scores of CEO buddies.

Thought more than a 40 year association with him, there are two periods that stand out.

In the early 1980s, as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago, I was leading a long and seemingly hopeless effort to save the Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. On the eve of the successful conclusion of that fight, things when off track. The developers, led by attorney and political insider, Marshall Holleb, needed an Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG). These were being held up by the Reagan Administration, specifically by then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Sam Pierce.

Since he was already a supporter of my effort – politically and financially — I traveled to Washington to seek Rosty’s help with the UDAG, After I explained the situation, Rosty asked his secretary to get Vice President George Bush on the line. Rosty made the case for the UDAG, then closed with this memorable line: “And tell the President, if he can’t give me this piddley UDAG to save the Chicago Theatre, he’ll have one pissed off chairman during the next round of tax reforms.”

The UDAG was granted, the Chicago Theatre was saved – and as a bonus I got the Vice President Bush as the headliner for my next City Club annual dinner.

A decade later, I was on opposite side of the partisan divide from Rosty, handling the congressional campaign of little-known Michael Flanagan. Mike was the David taking on the political Goliath. Even though Rosty was hammered by a serious of indictments for misusing public funds and public employees, he was considered a shoo-in. On the eve of the election, Associated Press lead off with a headline that Rosty was in a “cake walk” election. I told former WLS-TV political reporter Andy Shaw that we would take it by 10 points. No one took me serious. Flanagan won by ten.

Rosty’s defeat also exposed a bit of the unholy bipartisan central power structure in Illinois. On the morning after the election, Governor Jim Edgar hosted is traditional Republican victors breakfast. With Flanagan behind him on the stage, the Guv lamented the defeat of his “good friend” Dan Rostenkowski. But why not? Edgar was openly supporting Rosty throughout the campaign. Edgar would eventually aid and abet the return of that seat to the Democrats in the person of Rod Blagojevich, followed by Rahm Emmanual.

To the surprise of many, even after his election defeat, Rosty was as friendly to me as ever. That would seem impossible in today’s politics-as-blood-sport culture. In those days, partisanship was more like a boxing match. You were expected to fight hard to win partisan battles, but when the bell rang, the dukes were dropped and civility resumed. Rosty understand that culture, and he lived it.

For good or bad, Rostenkowski was the personification of the Chicago Machine. He was partisan. He loved “pork.” He was tough. He didn’t always play by the rules.

No matter if you were working with him, or against him, you had to love the guy. He will be missed.

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OBSERVATION: Random thoughts on Blago’s political demise.

I have a few closing thoughts on the ousting of Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Thought One: Almost unnoticed in the impeachment and removal from office of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was a provision that he be barred from ever again running for office in Illinois. I think this is overkill … piling on. Frankly, I think the Legislature is way out of bounds in preventing him from running for any office in the future – including Governor.

I mean, I wouldn’t vote for him. His chance of being elected to any major office is pretty minimal. However, I think he should have the right to run, and the voting public should have the right to decide to hire him or not – and not be pre-empted by a mob of over heated politicians.

While the odds suggest Blago will get indicted and convicted, that is not a certainty. What if he beats the rap? He is then an innocent man. What then?

Thought Two: I wonder … if this all happened one year earlier, would Barack Obama have made it to the White House. For sure, the world outside of Illinois had no idea just how corrupt is the political environment that spawned President Obama. So much of life is timing. (I put this item in as a shameless means to get a photo of Obama in the Blog and attract search engines. Forgive me … but it seems the thing to do these day.)

Thought Three: I heard some pundits chagrining the fact that they will not have Rod Blagojevich around to generate news. They opined that he will now fade into the shadows of public attention. I think not. In fact, I expect Blago to continue to be a very highly visible public figure — continuing to champion his cause in the main spotlight. More interestingly, he is very likely to seek revenge on his enemies – now as a citizen accuser – by dragging them before the same court of public opinion in which he was convicted.

While the self righteous political leaders sell themselves as the noble civic tribunes, I sort of think of them a bit more like Mafia don’s disposing of one of their own – you know – the guy that became a “problem” to the bosses. There is one of these characters in every mob movie.

Also, I am sure Blago knows where a lot of political bodies are buried and the impeachers forgot to take away his shovel. In view of the large volume of taped conversations, I suspect that a lot of others will find their hitherto secret schemes exposing them to a lot of embarrassment, minimally, and maybe criminal complicity. I dare say, old Blago could actually wind up being an unintentional agent of reform.

So cheer up sports fans. We are about to go into extra innings.

Thought Four: Most objective observers seem to agree that the press lost all sense of fairness and impartiality in the coverage of Barack Obama. It would appear that is also true in the case of Rod Blagojevich — althought it was wrath, not adulation, that powered the disturbing bias. I mean, I don’t like Blago at all, but I expect the media to adhere to traditional standards of professional objectivity. Rather than report on the issues, they scolded him, mocked him, belittled him. He was ravaged from every perspective … news, editorials, columns and talk shows. At times, I could not tell if Blago’s antics or the reporting of them was more outrageous. I guess both politicians and the press lose their perspective when offered an opportunity to be pompous.

Thought Five: Is the Blago saga reminding you — as it is me — of the Huey Long (right) epic? If you recall, he was the highly corrupt populist governor of Lousiana. He also was removed from office, but by only one disgruntled government employee with a gun. Blago had 59 disgruntled government employees with an impeachment. Ballots. Bullets? Same result … well … almost. If you have no idea what I am talking about, go to Blockbuster and rent the movie. All the King’s Men. The author of the story claimed it was not about Huey Long. Yeah! Right! Just like Citizen Kaneis not about William Randolph Hearst.

REACT: Governor ousted … but was it proper?

First the obligatory disclaimer: I am no fan of Governor Rod Blagojevich. I did not like his policies. I think he is most likely guilty of criminal conduct, and will be convicted and sent to prison. I think he deserves no less.

BUT …

I am equally distressed by the way he was removed from office. What transpired is the closest thing to a coup that I have seen under our American system of “innocent until proven guilty” and the quoted more than implemented “rule of law.”

First, there was the highly questionable press conference by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (who I admire greatly). According to many legal experts, he was out of bounds in bringing the case against the Governor to the court of public opinion before he was ready to announce an indictment. In fact, to this day Blago has not been indicted of any crime. Without that press conference to stir the public against the Governor, and coalesce his political adversaries, there would not have been any serious discussion of an impeachment – bad as Blago may be.

Second, there is the question of the impeachment process. Repeatedly noting that it is a “political process,” and not a judicial process, the leaders of the Illinois House and Senate still failed to explain why “fairness” should not be a consideration. In a unique irony, the Governor was barred by the U.S. Attorney’s office from obtaining testimony from those who might be on the witness list for his eventual criminal trial. He could not cross examine witnesses. The Senate-as-court could only listen to a few minutes out of thousands of hours of wire taped conversations because most of the real “evidence” was being withheld for the trial.

Third: It was not a secret vote. While one may say this provided transparency for the public, it really put the “jury” under the pressure of the mob. The secret ballot protects the individual from the intimidation and retribution of the public. I am quite confident that a secret ballot would have produced a number of “no” votes.

Fourth, since it was quite obvious that the Legislature could not prove a “high crimes and misdemeanors” case, they switched to the less specific “abuse of power” accusation. This dubious charge is in the eye of the beholder. By most standards, the Governor’s battles with the Legislature would not rise to impeachment and removal from office – in fact, the notion of impeachment was not even hinted at the time he took the actions now condemned. This means that the central charges against the Governor were not the accusations of the U.S. Attorney, but things he did several years ago that angered members of the Legislature. In other words, those sitting in judgment took advantage of the public anger over the unproven criminal charges to oust the Governor on the vague “abuse” charges.

Fifth, the leaders of the impeachment effort have demonstrated both chutzpah and hypocrisy. Not only did they not accuse the Governor of abuse of power at the time of the alleged abuse, but they praised him, endorsed him, and served on his campaign committee for re-election in the interim. His abuses of power were not recently discovered, only recently defined by those who engaged in the very same processes as one time comrades-in arms.

Yes, it is good that Blago is gone. And yes, Patrick Quinn (left, being sworn in) will most probably make a better governor. However, the impeachment should only be the first step in a broader effort to clean up Illinois government. The political assassins need to be brought to justice next — if nothing more than to be booted from office in the next election. Though they will now blame the former Governor for every ill in Illinois, they are still part of the business-as-usual process that has brought national shame to the Land of Lincoln.