January 2009 Issue
by Jay Gentile
From the third row of president-elect Barack Obama’s December 11th news conference in the Chicago Hilton’s Continental Ballroom C, Chicago INNERVIEW sat and watched as Chicago’s first president-elect tried to talk about health care. All the media wanted to know about was Rod Blagojevich, the now-infamous Illinois governor who was arrested at his Chicago home on federal corruption charges filed by U.S. Attorney (and fellow Chicagoan) Patrick Fitzgerald just two days earlier. The president-elect would spend much of the remainder of the month holding a series of press conferences throughout Chicago as he filled all 20 of his Cabinet-level positions in record time — yet all the media wanted to know about was Rod Blagojevich and what, if any, role Obama’s incoming chief of staff (and Chicago resident) Rahm Emanuel played in the unfolding scandal.
What a stunning reversal it had been from just one month earlier, when a massive Nov. 4 election night celebration in Grant Park helped elevate Chicago’s image on a national and international stage to soaring new heights. The peaceful images of 200,000 citizens gathered in a shared moment of collective civic pride and dignified revelry contrasted sharply with the ghosts of Grant Park’s violent past as the scene of ugly clashes between protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
After Nov. 4, it seemed that Grant Park ’08 had replaced Grant Park ’68 in our public consciousness and that, as a result, a new Chicago was born — a city that the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau quickly dubbed “Presidential Chicago” in its efforts to entice visitors to “experience the city the Obamas enjoy.” A Hyde Park restaurant showcased t-shirts that read “Obama Eats Here”, crowds lined up to see where Obama got his hair cut and banners congratulating “Chicago’s Own Barack Obama” hung from streetlights throughout the city. Residents looked on with pride as presidential motorcades cruised through the streets while political VIPs of all shapes and sizes — from Hillary Clinton to Al Gore to John McCain — shuffled in and out of the city for meetings with the Obama transition team at its headquarters in Chicago’s Kluczynski Federal Building. For the month of November, Chicago enjoyed a newfound reputation as “The Political Capital of the World” — and no seemed to be complaining about it.
But, much like the prospect of a Cubs World Series win, Chicago’s short-lived image rehabilitation proved too good to be true — and all the skeletons came tumbling out of the closet just before 6 a.m. the morning of Dec. 9 when FBI agents raided the Ravenswood Manor home of a sitting governor, who now faces the distinct possibility of becoming the fourth of our past eight Illinois governors to go to prison. The switch had been flipped, and Illinois was back to being “The Corruption Capital of America” — with its biggest city once again the home of machine-style politics and “The Chicago Way” (a phrase coined from the film The Untouchables: “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He [Al Capone] sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”)
Perhaps Obama thought that, by virtue of being a White Sox fan, he could avoid the Chicago curse. But let’s not forget this is also the city that gave us the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, where the dead have a historical right to vote, and where pay-to-play political patronage is a well-entrenched art form. “If [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor,” said Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office, at the Dec. 9 news conference in which the charges against Blagojevich were unveiled. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald added that the governor’s “conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave”, and that the 76-page criminal complaint filed against Blagojevich “has taken us to a truly new low.”
So how did Chicago fall from such historic November highs to such dismal December lows? The more salient allegations against Blagojevich — that he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Obama in addition to alleged extortion of Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital and the Chicago Tribune — are well known to anyone with a television set by now. But what seems to have played an equally substantial role in the sweeping reversal of Chicago’s brief image rehabilitation has been the obsessive role of the national media in trying to tie Blagojevich to the president-elect and Chicago’s “culture of corruption.”
It was a strange and surreal few weeks seeing local figures like State Representatives John Fritchey and Joe Lyons, U.S. House members Jesse Jackson Jr. and Danny Davis, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and House Speaker Mike Madigan — in addition to countless other members of the local political and media establishment — all over the mid-December cable news. They each had been paraded in front of the national press corps to more or less answer variations of the same old question, one which was originally raised by CBS Chicago reporter Mike Flannery at the Dec. 11 news conference: “What’s wrong with politics in Illinois?”
“Here in Illinois — as is true, I think, across the country — there is a tradition of public service, where people are getting in it for the right reasons and to serve,” Obama said at the Dec. 11 news conference attended by Chicago INNERVIEW. “But what you also have, I think, are habits and a culture that thinks of politics as a means of self-aggrandizement. That’s exactly what has to change.”
So how persistent of a problem will this be for President Obama? It will last a long time, that is for sure, as the governor signaled no intention of stepping aside at his Dec. 19 news conference in Chicago at which he declared his innocence, his intention to “fight until I take my last breath”, and his affinity for reciting the poetry of Rudyard Kipling — an obvious attempt to counteract his image as the expletive-spewing buffoon caught on FBI wiretaps and mercilessly lampooned on every late-night comedy show in the nation. A trial of the governor could last a year or longer, and the Illinois General Assembly’s Democratic leadership is obviously loath to call a special election (which would be held in April 2009 at the earlier) out of fear of losing the seat to a Republican. Short of the governor’s resignation, that leaves the option of impeachment — a process begun by the state legislature but one which would also take months and could, in the end, be tough to convict on in the absence of new charges being filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
In a Dec. 23 conference call with reporters, including Chicago INNERVIEW, Obama’s incoming White House counsel Greg Craig commented on the Obama transition team’s long-awaited internal report of staff contacts with Blagojevich, which had just been released and which cleared them (and, specifically, Rahm Emanuel) of any wrongdoing. Craig said that Emanuel had “a couple conversations” with the governor as well as “about four conversations” with Blagojevich’s former chief of staff John Harris about the open Senate seat, and that “there was nothing at all inappropriate about these conversations.” Additional details provided to the press in the 4-page report seemed to back up Craig’s assertions. While the issue isn’t likely to go away any time soon, it should take a back seat as the more pressing issues of running the country emerge following the inauguration.
In the meantime, Chicago isn’t about to surrender its position as this administration’s Western White House. Obama says he plans to return to Chicago at least once every six to eight weeks, he will be keeping his Chicago home and campaign office, and will be bringing many Chicago brains — including Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools CEO (and Education Secretary nominee) Arne Duncan, advisors David Alexrod, Valerie Jarrett, and William Daley (brother of the mayor) — with him to Washington. Chicago will get another chance to redeem itself. Let’s hope we don’t blow it…again.