“Chicago ain’t ready for reform!” gloated the saloonkeeper-alderman Paddy Bauler when Richard Daley was first elected mayor in 1955. Is it ready yet? The Chicago Tribune has just published an editorial demanding the resignation of Sen. Roland Burris. Just guessing, but I doubt that Burris will heed it.
Republicans can enjoy the Democrats’ embarrassment—and the suddenly enhanced prospect for a GOP pickup in the Senate in 2010, when Burris must finally face the voters.
But the Burris disgrace raises a bigger and more troubling question about the administration Americans have just elected.
The seat Burris fills was previously Barack Obama’s. We know that Obama felt a strong interest in the identity of his successor: Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel lobbied hard for Valerie Jarrett, an Obama confidante now serving as a White House aide. Impeached governor Rod Blagojevich selected Burris instead.
At first, Obama joined Senate Democrats in opposing the selection.
“Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision ….”
But when another Chicago pol, Rep. Bobby Rush stepped forward to compare Burris opponents to Southern segregationists, Senate Democrats collapsed—and President Obama collapsed with them. Obama surely feels little love for Rush, who bested Obama in the Democratic primary for the House seat Rush took in 2000. But Obama would not stand up against Rush either.
Okay, presidents don’t have to join every fight. But Obama’s abstention from this particular fight follows a career-long pattern. Obama rose through one of the most corrupt political systems in the United States. He largely avoided contamination by the system (largely but not perfectly: see Rezko, Tony, benefactions of). But neither did he ever confront that system.
Obama struck the same deal with Chicago that had previously been struck by senators Paul Douglas and Adlai Stevenson. Douglas and Stevenson were men of high ideals and liberal principle. They were also reliable political allies of Mayor Richard Daley. What they did not see, they could not condemn—and so they made sure not to see. Obama likewise managed to overlook a lot.
Will America’s first Chicago president develop keener eyesight now that he has risen to national office? It does not look that way. Instead, the old pattern of not seeing what it is not pleasant to see seems to be spreading.
President Obama has appointed another Chicago pol, Rahm Emanuel, as his chief of staff. Emanuel also has a demonstrated record of not seeing things: He served two years on the board of Freddie Mac, earning more than $250,000 while failing to detect the multiple accounting and political scandals that buffeted Freddie Mac over the same period. Emanual succeeded in Chicago even more spectacularly than Obama himself, accumulating a multimillion-dollar fortune in barely 30 months in the private sector.
President Obama has promised America a transparent administration. But transparency only helps those who have their eyes open. In Chicago, they teach ‘em to keep well shut.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 7 of the scariest spiders in existence
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
- Why isn't 'Arkansas' pronounced like 'Kansas'?
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
- It's time for the police to rethink 'shoot-to-kill'
- The best online movies to watch this weekend
- Can sci-fi save the romantic comedy?
- Internet piracy isn't killing Hollywood
Subscribe to the Week