Thursday, December 11, 2008

Goober-natorial Follies

Right after the election, BookTV (the weekend fill-in for C-SPAN) ran a 2006 interview with Barack Obama, then just another writer hitting the road for his second book, The Audacity of Hope. A member of the audience asked, "What's it like to walk onto the floor of the Senate for the first time?" and his reply characteristically mixed humor with thoughtfulness. "They have these little desks," he said (I'm paraphrasing), "too small to work on. You open them up and people have carved their names inside, Daniel Webster, Robert Kennedy. It's a little silly, like graffiti, but it also reminds you that you're part of a continuing process." He added, "I'm like 98 out of a hundred. My constituents ask me to do things for them and I remind them that I'm just a freshman. I'm practically mopping the floor."

For the first time since 1960 we are about to have a President who will go straight from the Senate to the White House. Among other things, he obviously has a perspective that is not available to a governor. Also obviously, it takes no brains whatsoever to be a governor, and I'm not just talking about the jaw-dropping events in Illinois. I'm not suggesting that all governors are idiots, nor that all Senators are brilliant. I guess I'm saying that a doltish governor has a better shot at the presidency than a doltish Senator.

Even the most doltish Senator has to know that he or she is one member of a hundred-person body, seated behind that little desk. By contrast, the governor has a big office furnished to taste, and can usually look out the window at the domed state capitol (most of them have domes, no matter how silly they look; we love the Roman style in our civic architecture), and dream: "I'm the chief executive, the big dog in this state, but some day I'll be in the Oval Office looking at the real Capitol." Which is not necessarily a bad thing: the two Roosevelts, for instance, came out of Albany with progressive ideas which reshaped the nation for the better. Woodrow Wilson, on the other hand, allowed shrewder politicians to talk him out of most of his Fourteen Points and settled for re-drawing the map of Europe and the Middle East, creating ethnic and religious conflicts the world is still struggling to pacify. Bill Clinton wasted most of his time and political capital coping with inane scandal, and we will spend most of this century cleaning up the messes created by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. All four of them could have profited from a term in the Senate, mopping the floor, reading the names of famous and forgotten men who sat there before them.

Which brings me to Rod Blagojevich. The mind-boggling stupidity/arrogance it took to incriminate himself on a tapped phone, within the jurisdiction of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, reminds us that all you really need to be a perfectly competent governor is a change of clothes and a pulse. I mean, come on: Lester Maddox, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Haley Barbour, Mike "Intelligent Design" Huckabee, Sarah Palin, does that sound like a slate of Mensa candidates? And now this guy with his Herb Tarlick hair helmet and David Mamet vocabulary -- has he forgotten that the last governor is in prison?

Despite the best efforts of the media, this can't be made into a partisan problem. George Ryan is a Republican, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat, is trying to get him a pardon (he's 74). ( Ryan's last act as governor was to commute the sentence of everyone on Illinois's death row, a gesture not likely to impress the vicious fool who once entertained his fellow evangelical Christians by imitating Karla Faye Tucker pleading for her life.) It isn't even an Illinois problem, despite the media's constantly intoning names like Dan Rostenkowski and Al Capone; cherry-pick the history of any state and you can fill a bushel basket with crooks. There's something about being a governor, what Mencken would call a "tin-pot tyrant," that brings out the dumb in sober, intelligent people.

Everyone knows about the risible fall of Eliot Spitzer, but what about his neighbor Jon Corzine? He was nearly killed while being driven at high speed on the Garden State Parkway last year, without a seatbelt. Why the rush? He had to get to Trenton to referee a meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team. As Patrick Fitzgerald might say, are you bleepin' kidding me? Then there was Thomas Rowland of Connecticut, who used state workers to spruce up his vacation house. What, that's against the law? The piddling bribes accepted by Spiro Agnew while governor of Maryland came back to bite him years later when he found himself saying "Nolo contendere" instead of "...faithfully execute the office of President." Personally, I think we got lucky there. And I seem to remember a few Louisiana governors who went away over the years, or should have, not to mention the one who was declared mentally incompetent.

The President-elect has come in for some sniping (a bit of it right here) for being too conciliatory and too willing to keep Republicans like Robert Gates on the payroll, but this may just be something he learned in the Senate, the Illinois legislature, and the South Side of Chicago. Let's see what January 21, 2009, brings.

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