Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Rod Blagojevich affair this much is clear: his primary offense is not being corrupt but in being boring and vapid. Once, in the days when women had names like Madge and men still smoked cigarettes on fire escapes, American politicians offered entertainment and charisma in exchange for their dishonesty.
Curley. Long. Tweed. Daley. These were men who took pride in their work and gave the historians something to work with. Even their names carried a sort of adjectival flourish. But just as the end of the Cold War took with it the days when assassins were talented professionals (even the failed attempts at knocking someone off -- Castro’s exploding cigar, for instance -- betrayed a certain flair for originality) ours is an era of failed corrupt imaginations. These days the Dark Hand guys cannot manage to rubout a garden-variety former-agent-turned-dissident without leaving a radioactive cookie trail all the way back to Moscow. It’s enough to make Lenin roll over in his cryogenic crypt were that not also a casualty of the new order.
But I digress.
Blagojevich’s contribution to history is a mouthful of unwieldy consonants and the boyish cowlick camouflaging his forehead. Material for cartoonist but hardly enough to build a decent conspiracy theory. Daley’s hand in the election of 1960, now that will be fodder for barroom speculation into the next century. James Curley allegedly sold pardons to convicts when he was governor of Massachusetts, won his first political campaign despite the fact that he was in a jail cell and later served two years as mayor of Boston while incarcerated. Boss Tweed was convicted of stealing somewhere between 40 and 200 million, escaped from prison and managed to make it all the way to Spain before he was apprehended. These were guys who could inspire assassins and outsized shows of public mourning. Compared to that kind of gifted graft, Blagojevich’s ham-fisted declarations (“I want money!” “This fucking thing is golden!”) sounds downright amateurish.
To paraphrase the late Heath Ledger, this nation deserves a better quality of corrupt politician.
Perhaps it is wrong to place this solely on the shoulders of Blago. (The one upside in this is that the tabloid media has lost none of its skill at derisive nicknaming. And were it not attached to the Illinois Governor, “Blago” would be perfect for a villain in the next Bond movie.) Look at his peers: Elliot Spitzer, went down as a class A hypocrite but a scandal in which the target is also the primary victim just doesn’t warrant much note. Ditto John Edwards. Larry Craig is guilty of flashing a poorly timed hand-signal and Kwame Kilpatrick ran afoul of the law for the tech equivalent of passing dirty notes with his chief of staff.
Not even a secret foreign account among them.
The currency of scandal has become so devalued that congress actually believed that Clinton’s high school-ish fumblings with Monica Lewinsky were worthy of an impeachment. (Warren Harding did a heck of a lot more than that in the White House without the least hint of jeopardy.)
I have a theory to explain this mundane malfeasance. At some point we began electing politicians because they seemed just like us. And you can’t get larger-than-life scandal out of life-sized politicians.
Or perhaps we simply know too much. The poor modern politician can scarcely get a running start into something big before some blog catches wind of it, the misdeed becomes part of the 24 hour media cycle and some beleaguered press secretary is fielding questions on the fly.
The media spotlight leaves scarcely any room for shadiness.