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Thursday, Dec. 30, 2004 02:23 pm

From the mouths of knaves

When it comes to funny, puzzling, and downright goofy comments, Illinois is the land of plenty. Partly that's because Illinois is also a land of political hot air, increasing the chance that some politician will speak without thinking.

Most of these folks don't make a career of it. They are mere amateurs of oddball oratory, pygmies of political palaver. But then you have Gov. Rod Blagojevich and failed U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes.

The two of them dominate so thoroughly that a full list of their more entertaining remarks would leave no room for anyone else. Just to even things out, we'll divide this into categories so that a few other people get the attention they deserve.

First up, the General Assembly.

Rep. Robert Pritchard showed the proper reverence for the Legislature when he acknowledged the difficulty of trying to replace the late Rep. David Wirsing. "I have big feet to fill," said Pritchard, R-Sycamore.

Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, managed to simultaneously defend lawmakers' interest in gambling expansion and audition for a poetry slam: "We're not greedy. We always try to help the children of Illinois, the needy, and that's not being greedy. We're for the needy . . . That's not being greedy, taking care of the needy."

Legislative debate is part art and part science, a complex process of drawing out information and winning opponents over to your point of view. But the masters make it look simple, as when Rep. Bill Black engaged in reasoned discourse with a colleague: "Tell me the truth or sit down! Tell me the truth, you little weasel!" The Danville Republican later apologized to his target, Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, who told Black not to fret. "Don't worry. I've been called a lot worse," Phelps said.

Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, explored the delicate issue of the University of Illinois' mascot, Chief Illiniwek. "I happen to be someone who supports the Chief, and I am not a segregationist. I also support Reggie Redbird, and I think the Redbirds should continue to be the honored symbol of Illinois State University. I'm not a segregationist, because I also like bluebirds," he explained.

Some lawmakers don't talk much but still manage to work for the common good. The late Sen. Stan Weaver, a Republican from Urbana, was one such man, as Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, recalled: "Stan Weaver got stopped for speeding, coming over here on the interstate, and they gave him a ticket. Now, can you imagine!... They really wrote a ticket and gave him a ticket. Now Stan gets over here, and what does he do? He picks up the state-police budget. And that budget was held and held and held. I mean, it was unbelievable. They paid dearly for that. But he sent a strong message. And that's the way Stan was. There was a very quiet strength about him."

The news business -- both those creating it and those writing about it -- was another major source of eyebrow-raising comments.

"Giant African snails prompt public health warning," was the headline on a news release from the Public Health Department.

The top of another release said "Ceglelis for Congress." Unfortunately, it was from a congressional candidate named Christine Cegelis -- with only one L.

Political columnist Rich Miller ran a correction that raised more questions than it answered: "Disregard that GOP Senate poll from IVI-IPO I reported on yesterday. It apparently wasn't real. Sorry about that."

The Los Angeles Times found that its political reporting needed a bit of fine-tuning when it had to run this correction: "An article in Sunday's Section A described the Illinois Senate race as close. A poll taken in mid-September showed Democratic candidate Barack Obama with a 51-percentage-point lead over Republican Alan Keyes."

Former political reporter Mark Samuels interviewed House Speaker Michael Madigan and asked a question that ran for 275 words, culminating in a hard-hitting query: "For the record, Mr. Speaker, what is this marvelous power that allows you to control every aspect of state government except our esteemed governor? Is it charm? Is it persuasion? Is it hypnotism? Is it true?"

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell found it praiseworthy that Barack Obama had married a black woman. "That this Harvard-educated biracial man, who was raised in a white family, chose a brown sugar sister to marry gave black women all over this country a boost."

Speaker Madigan offered his views of the press in one of his rare interviews: "I don't think I get fair reporting from most reporters. I think most reporters simply want to get me into disputes with Blagojevich."

But Madigan and Blagojevich don't need any help getting into disputes -- not with Madigan saying such things as "I think there's a general pattern where the governor will say things that just are not correct, and it's because he does have difficulty with the facts." And not with Blagojevich comparing their relationship to war: "It's almost like the U.S. Army in Vietnam and I'm dealing with Ho Chi Minh. It's guerilla warfare. And [he] doesn't have to answer to anything."

Political campaigns are always a good source of unintentional comedy.

State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, the Elgin Republican who ran for U.S. Senate, decided to play political weatherman in a press release with this prediction: "Rauschycast: Focused and Feisty"

U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan vowed to stick to the high road in his campaign, saying "We never really say anything negative about our opponents . . . I think voters want that. They don't want to hear negative stuff." Of course, this was after comparing his opponent, Barack Obama, to Mao Tse-tung and falsely claiming that Obama had supported hundreds of tax increases.

Another high-minded comment from Ryan: "Knock, knock. Who's there? Obama, the criminals' good friend."

Ryan was soon gone, and Illinois Republicans found it just about impossible to get someone else to challenge Obama. "It's a sad comment on the Illinois Republican Party that arguably no one who is sane is willing to even accept the nomination," said the retiring incumbent, U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

U.S. House Speaker Denny Hastert proved a good barometer of the party's feelings about a process that ended up producing Alan Keyes as the GOP nominee. On July 9, he had one firm criterion: "Somebody that can win. Raise money and win, that's the key." By Aug. 4, his standards were softening: "We're getting down to the point where we need to have a candidate. We don't have a lot of time to be choosy." On Aug. 8, after Keyes was chosen, Hastert didn't seem to know whether there were any criteria at all: "You know, we were down -- we needed to find somebody to run, somebody who wanted to run. And, you know, Alan Keyes wants to run, and I hope he's a good candidate . . . I was out of town when it happened."

And that brings us to Keyes, who ran a Senate campaign that earned him the nickname "the Maryland Mouth."

He loved to make points by using comparisons that don't often come up in political discussions: "These people who say, 'Well, I think abortion is wrong, but I've got to stand for a public policy that pursues it,' are people who would say -- I don't know -- 'Sex outside of marriage is wrong, but I'm going to be a porno star,' " he explained in one debate with Obama.

Keyes also never hesitated to link politics and religion: "Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has voted to behave in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved."

His most famous comment, and the most politically damaging, had to do with whether Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter is a selfish hedonist because she is gay: "Of course she is. That goes by definition. Of course she is . . . Dick Cheney may or many not like to hear the truth, but it can be spoken."

Later, however, Keyes denied any responsibility for the comment. "This is, again, an area of fabrication by the media. I never raised Mary Cheney's name," he said. "I targeted no one. I raised nobody's family -- because I don't. It was, once again, the media. The scandal-mongering media. The media that wants profit at the expense of every shred of integrity in American public life."

Then there is Gov. Blagojevich, the man who feels so comfortable talking that he will interrupt news conferences to discuss his dreams. (". . . so as Barack and I are fixing that taxicab and the security detail is getting more and more nervous about security, the taxicab driver gets out of the taxicab and it was Alan Keyes . . . ")

The Democratic governor often sprinkles educational tidbits and historical allusions into his conversations. He called for an overhaul of the state's education system by saying, "You've got a fiefdom out there called the Illinois State Board of Education that acts as independently as the Duchy of Brandenburg did during the Thirty Years' War."

And he summed up state budget negotiations with "It's sort of like the Hegelian doctrine of you get a thesis and then the antithesis and then you end up with a synthesis. That's how democracy is supposed to work."

Blagojevich also serves as an example of what can be done by harnessing the mind's power. He once expressed disappointment at not meeting a longtime hero, memory expert Jerry Lucas: "He actually can do his name upside down and inside out. It's ejrry aclsu. I can memorize 43 concrete, tangible words that I can picture. You can give them to me and in a matter of 10 or 15 seconds I can picture it in my mind, and then . . . give it to you frontwards and backwards, inside out. You can say, 'Number 16,' 'number 22,' and I can tell you -- apple, orange, and all the rest."

The bottom line is that Blagojevich isn't afraid to get tough, especially with lawmakers. "You signed up for this job. Take a position," he scolded them on the topic of gambling. He also sees the importance of flexibility, especially on his own views about gambling: "I don't want to start speculating on what I might or might not be for."

The final word goes to television judge Mablean Ephriam of the show Divorce Court. She spoke at a statehouse AIDS rally, encouraging kids not to think of sex as the most important thing in the world: "It's just three minutes of gratification -- if it's that."

Let's wish her a much happier 2005. She needs it.

Also from Christopher Wills

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