The Art of the Unbelievable

The trouble with Illinois politics


In many places, voters become disenchanted when politicians move directly from high offices to lucrative jobs as lobbyists and consultants. Not in Illinois. Here, we are just happy when a politician doesn't go directly from high office to prison.

Of the most recent eight governors (not including the incumbent), three have been convicted of felonies. That's a batting average of .375, which is high in any league. And then we have the last governor, who got impeached and is now on trial.

It would not have been hard for Rod Blagojevich to raise the ethical standards of his office. His immediate predecessor, George Ryan, is serving a 6 1/2-year term in federal prison for bribery, extortion and other mischief.

Yet Blagojevich has managed to disappoint even the most pessimistic voters. His tenure brought to mind comedian Lily Tomlin's lament: "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

All he did was get caught on wiretapped phone calls running his office like a used car lot. Most notable was his effort to trade an appointment to the U.S. Senate for money, campaign contributions or a job—such as secretary of Health and Human Services, which was about as plausible as his winning the Cy Young Award.

Yet last week, it came as a stunner to find we cannot believe everything he says.

For months, the state's most infamous Elvis impersonator had vowed to take the stand at his corruption trial.

In June, he told reporters, "I can't wait to testify, to set the record straight and clarify some of these conversations, and tell the people of Illinois exactly what was on my mind and what I was trying to do and what I ultimately attempted to do."

But after the prosecution rested, he elected to maintain a discreet silence. Given a choice of hanging himself in court or being exposed as a brazen fabricator, well, you know which one Rod would choose.

He's not entirely alone. The events involving that particular Senate seat, which was vacated by Barack Obama in November 2008, have generated an epidemic of mendacity.

There was Obama, who the White House said "had no contact or communication with Gov. Blagojevich or members of his staff about the Senate seat." But it emerged in the trial that Obama had personally called Tom Balanoff, head of the Service Employees International Union, to suggest the appointment of his longtime aide Valerie Jarrett. Balanoff promptly set up a meeting with Blagojevich to pass on the recommendation.

There was Roland Burris, the former state comptroller who got himself named to the vacancy. Burris originally said "there was not any contact" between his people and the governor's people about the appointment. He later amended and re-amended that claim—with the crucial revisions coming after the Senate had agreed to let him be sworn in.

Much later came the revelation of a wiretapped call between him and the governor's brother, before Burris was chosen, in which they discussed ways an appointee might express his gratitude. He promised to send Blagojevich a campaign contribution.

The Senate Democratic leadership, including Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, originally declared that "anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus." A few weeks later—I know this will shock you—that promise went poof.

Gov. Pat Quinn, the Democrat who succeeded Blagojevich following his impeachment, had supported holding a special election to fill the vacancy. But seeing the possibility that the Democrats might lose, he and the legislature dropped the idea like a hot stove.

Last week, though, it was revived by a federal appeals court, which said the Constitution requires a special election. What began as tragedy has degenerated into farce: On Nov. 2, 2010, Illinoisans may get to choose someone to finish a term that will end in January 2011, at the same time they choose someone to occupy the office until January 2017.

Right now, the race includes Republican Mark Kirk, who has made a name with tall tales about his Navy career and his teaching experience, and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, who claimed to have been a major force at his family's bank but now blames others for its failure.

In Illinois politics, fiction is the only truth.