The ancient Athenians used to practice a procedure known as ostracism. Every once in awhile, they would cleanse their body politic by expelling a prominent citizen for 10 years.
Sort of like what we do with our governors in Illinois.
We may feel we’re excising a tumor from Illinois by branding former Gov. Rod Blagojevich as a criminal who no longer deserves to live among us. But as he finally gets his day in court, we need to remember that it isn’t just Blagojevich who’s on trial. It’s the entire state of Illinois. Blagojevich is simply a representative of the corrupt political culture we’ve created here, to the disgust and amusement of the rest of the nation. Even if he’s convicted, no one’s going to say, “Wow, Illinois really cleaned up its act.”
If sending a governor to prison was the answer to our corruption problem, then Blagojevich would have learned something from his felonious predecessor, George Ryan. But Blago continued to grift even after Ryan was packed off to his retirement home in Wisconsin, allegedly shaking down a children’s hospital and conspiring to sell President Obama’s old Senate seat.
When two governors in a row end up in federal court, the problem is as much with the state as the men who hold the office. Have you ever heard a twice-divorced guy complain that he keeps picking the wrong women? Look in the mirror, pal.
As far as we know, Blagojevich was not a corrupt legislator or congressman, but once he became governor, he was suddenly given a host of offices to sell -- and a powerful incentive to sell them. During Blagojevich’s term in office, Illinois had no limits on campaign contributions. Blagojevich spent the enormous sum of $26 million on his 2006 re-election.
Blagojevich’s misdeeds finally forced us to re-evaluate our behavior. Last year, the General Assembly finally placed limits on campaign contributions. But the bill really only affected the governor’s power to spend money. The four legislative leaders -- who worked together to impeach and convict Blagojevich -- will still be able to give unlimited sums of money to individual legislators. That makes Blagojevich’s ouster look more than a little like a legislative coup against the power of the governor’s office. As badly as our governors have behaved, and as much as that office needed reforming, it wasn’t the only rotten corner of Illinois politics. Over the last 40 years, 1,000 elected officials have been convicted in this state.
If it turns out Blagojevich was a criminal, then he should be sent to an out-of-state federal prison. But kicking him out of Illinois isn’t going to make this place less corrupt. He’s not the problem. We are.