Saturday, December 20, 2008

No Mr. Smiths In This Movie

As I watched the video of a defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich proclaiming his innocence and promising to "Fight, Fight, Fight" the corruption charges leveled against him by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, I couldn't help but think how opposite this dramatic scene was from Sen. Jeff Smith's defining moment in "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." The governor's fighting words were in a place far away from Smith's "There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties." Even after being caught on tape attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat, shaking down a children's hospital for cash and demanding the Tribune Company fire editors of the Chicago Tribune critical of him if the company expected any assistance for Chicago's beloved Cubs, Gov. Blagojevich stood tall and proud in front of a bevy of reporters and television cameras, promising to fight to his last dying breath.

The mythical character portrayed by Jimmie Stewart, Jefferson Smith, was willing to fight to his dying breath to protect a proposed boys camp from a pork barrel, dam project favored by his state's corrupt political establishment. The political boss of the state, Jim Taylor, controlled the governor who appointed Smith to his seat, the state's senior Senator Joseph Payne and the news media. Together, the corrupt political establishment sought to portray Smith as the bad guy, but they couldn't break him. In the end, it was Sen. Payne, played by Claude Raines, who confessed his own corruption to his shocked Senate colleagues, overwhelmed by his own shame.

As bad as Blagojevich comes across in this movie, others don't fair much better. The state's junior senator, Barack Obama, preparing to take the reins of the U.S. presidency, could barely muster a statement of indignation concerning the governor's actions. How could he? Obama is a player in The Combine which runs Illinois government. Pay-to-play is how the game is played and Obama played it as well as the next guy. The man at the center of the corruption scheme, political fixer Tony Rezko, helped Obama get his start in Illinois politics, raised more than a quarter million dollars for him and financially assisted him in the purchase of his home.

House Speaker Mike Madigan looked particular small when he told an MSNBC reporter this week that Republicans were to blame for acting as the governor's enabler in defending his refusal to allow legislation to be heard that would let Illinois voters pick their next senator. His party has controlled the Illinois General Assembly for years, including his more than two decades as the House's top leader. He co-chaired the governor's re-election campaign and serves as his party's state chairman. He belatedly initiated impeachment proceedings against the governor many months after evidence first surfaced in Rezko's trial of the extent of pay-to-play corruption in his administration. Instead of adopting rules that permit bipartisan participation in the proceeding, Madigan stacked the rules so his party alone can control who is called to testify and produce evidence to the impeachment committee. One of the clients of Madigan's law firm, power broker William Cellini, has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney and figures pretty big in the pay-to-play scandal engulfing Illinois government. Ed Genson, the high profile criminal defense attorney hired by Blagojevich, dined with Cellini while in Springfield this week attending to his impeachment duties. Cellini's influence in Illinois is remarkably similar to the mythical Jim Taylor's influence.

Madigan's daughter's behavior is equally as deplorable. Rather than use her job as the state's top law enforcement officer in the state to weed out public corruption, Attorney General Lisa Madigan has continually deferred all action to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office. Incredibly, she sought to short-circuit the impeachment process by petitioning the state's Supreme Court to relieve the governor of his constitutional duties because of an alleged "disability." Madigan's name has surfaced prominently in the governor's attempt to sell the senate seat Obama is vacating. She wants the appointment. If Blagoyevich is dislodged from office, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn might be counted on to appoint her to the seat with the understanding she won't challenge him for governor in 2010. Are her actions more noble than Blagojevich's?

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn first demanded the governor's resignation and called on the legislature to pass legislation allowing Illinois voters to pick their next senator at a special election. He then reversed his position and now says he wants the power to appoint Obama's replacement after Gov. Blagojevich either resigns or is impeached. The motivation for this dramatic reversal is suspect. Although he often pushes reform-minded concepts to the point of being a gadfly, he is haunted by his past as well. Observers of the former administration of Gov. Dan Walker from the 1970s describe Quinn as a ghost employee who performed political work on the taxpayer's dime. Walker later went to jail on unrelated fraud charges arising out of his management of a failed savings and loan.

Historians tell us that Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" was vilified at the time by the Washington establishment and the American press for portraying the august U.S. Senate as corrupt. It was banned in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Russia because it proved that good could win out over bad in a democratic government. However accurately Capra's movie portrayed the state of politics in America in 1939 it cannot be disputed how relevant its plot is to politics in America today. Today's movie plot is real life and not imaginary. Smith was as defiant as Gov. Blagojevich and offered his own fighting words. "You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause." Smith, unlike Blagojevich, had a cause worth fighting for.

"Great principles don't get lost once they come to light," Sen. Smith said. "They're right here; you just have to see them again!" Unfortunately, finding someone today who can see those "great principles" and stand up and fight for them is a daunting task.

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