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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008 10:41 pm

What Newsweek said about Springfield

There’s more to the story of ‘Corruption in the Land of Lincoln’

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When I saw Newsweek on my caller ID a couple weeks ago I thought my subscription must have expired. Instead it was Michael Isikoff, the veteran investigative reporter. Isikoff had written articles from Washington for Illinois Times 30 years ago, and once visited here to cover the campaign of then-Congressman Paul Findley. Soon after that, Isikoff joined the Washington Star, then the Washington Post and, in 1994, Newsweek. “What’s with you guys in Springfield?” the reporter wanted to know.

Leave it to the national media to point up a contrast that few of us here had drawn because we know things are not as clearcut as they suggest. Isikoff zeroed in on the obvious. Though Springfield is flush with Barack Obama’s victory, and eagerly embraces Obama’s Old State Capitol stagecrafting to draw comparisons with Abraham Lincoln, there is a troubling dark side to the current political scene in Springfield. Yes, Bill Cellini has been indicted, and yes, the rumor is that Gov. Rod Blagojevich may be next, I said as I chatted with Isikoff, suggesting some sources he could contact. But that doesn’t have anything to do with Obama, I said.

Or does it? On the next week’s cover of Newsweek was Lincoln in Obama’s shadow, with the headline, “Obama’s Lincoln.” The main story was a routine recapitulation of Obama‘s admiration for Lincoln, and his “Team of Rivals” approach that has him bringing Hillary Clinton into the cabinet like Lincoln brought in William Seward. But the interesting piece was Isikoff’s sidebar, “Corruption in the Land of Lincoln,” declaring, “These should be heady days in Springfield, but state politicians have been jolted by unseemly accusations.”

The article called the indicted Cellini “the latest casualty in a sweeping, three-year investigation by U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a probe that is reinforcing the state’s long-held reputation for rank corruption and tawdry politics.” It went on to say that a “prime focus” of Fitzgerald’s investigation is Democrat Blagojevich, and that Fitzgerald had earlier won a conviction of former Gov. George Ryan. He quoted UIS political science professor Kent Redfield, one of the sources I suggested, saying, “there has always been a ‘Let’s make a deal’ and ‘Where’s mine?’ kind of politics that is pretty pervasive in the culture of Illinois.”

Isikoff’s Newsweek piece gives readers the message, “Isn’t it interesting that there can be corruption in the land of Lincoln and Obama?” But it stops short of explaining why or how such things occur. It’s worth pointing out that the implication that corruption is rampant in Springfield rests on thin ice that could melt away. Cellini has only been indicted ­— he hasn’t been convicted and may well beat the charges. There are only rumors that Blagojevich may be indicted. To make him look guilty, the governor is often quoted telling Stuart Levine, “You stick with us and you’ll do very well for yourself.” But where’s the crime in that? If U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald doesn’t have more on the governor than we’ve seen so far, there will be no conviction. That wouldn’t put an end to the charge that Springfield is corrupt, but it would make the case harder to prove.

Illinois seems to produce good guys and bad guys in equal numbers and strengths. What is disappointing is that good guys don’t usually do much to go after the bad guys. For his own survival, Adlai Stevenson had to make his peace with the swashbuckling Chicago Democratic machine. As a young man, then-State Rep. Paul Simon famously penned a 1964 article in Harper’s magazine, “The Illinois Legislature: A Study in Corruption,” coming out hard against legislators on the take. But even he toned down his rhetoric on this subject in later years. As a state senator, Obama sponsored bipartisan ethics legislation, but he wasn’t particularly known as a corruption fighter. U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin has worked behind the scenes to clean up his party, and he called for the reappointment of Fitzgerald, a move much appreciated. Still we long for the day when such quiet moves against rotten politics become louder.

As Newsweek said, these should be heady days in Springfield, with Obama’s election plus national celebrations planned for the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Instead there is a pall over the capital, which is “jolted by unseemly accusations.” It is also plagued by a state government that not only doesn’t work, but seems to target Springfield. Closing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas house is only the latest of several insults. Springfield can’t count on the U.S. attorney to get rid of Blagojevich and make things right. When a national newsmagazine headlines, “Corruption in the Land of Lincoln,” some local outrage needs to happen.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times. Contact him at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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