Paul Jacob

We've had our fun sniping about how corrupt the state of Illinois can be, how Gov. Rod Blagojevich is just the latest from a state noted for its smoke-filled rooms, payola, and double-dealing.

But we risk overlooking the real issue: It's not that Illinois is especially corrupt. It's that power tends to corrupt and every governor faces temptation. Many succumb.

It may be that, in Illinois, the state's reputation encourages a certain bravado. Blagojevich used the f-word to accentuate his adamantine insistence on getting a return from doing his constitutional duty.

Governors elsewhere, perhaps just as corrupt, practice a little more suavity, and thus don't hit the newspapers. We don't see headlines like this:

  • Understated Master Rhetorician Schwarzenegger Bribes California's Democrats
  • New York Governor Raises Eyebrow During Crucial Negotiations With Donors
  • Our Governor Remains Pro at Avoiding Quid Pro Quo

Journalists report news, and news amounts to a politician getting caught. A politician raising money in the ways politicians usually raise money is definitely not news, even if politics as usual has all the ethical uprightness of the Tower of Pisa.

The truth is, it's hard to raise money in politics . . . if you are out of power.

I know. I have been involved in fundraising for ballot measures or lobbying efforts around the country. It's not easy. All I can offer is a chance to change public policy.

Sitting politicians, on the other hand, have huge advantages. Their duties include passing legislation and handing out lucrative government contracts that pack quite a wallop to the wallet.

Incumbent politicians are positioned perfectly to say, "You have to pay to play." Government has powers for which some folks will pay a lot. A politician could make a lot of money for providing such private services attached to public goods. It's understandable. Renting a politician's services can go a long way to increasing one's own wealth. And, moreover, the politician's wealth.

Most ways of paying are legal, though often ethically questionable. Some ways -- more blatant and obvious -- can be illegal while remaining hard to catch. Politicians know which words to use in avoiding a literal quid pro quo statement.

Blagojevich suffers, now, from his bluntness, his gruff, vulgar corruption. But every politician is tempted with similar activity. Blagojevich serves as the tip of a much larger iceberg. Most just play it more subtly.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.