"Politics in Louisiana is as clean as an angel's ghost."
-- Louisiana Sen. Huey Long, in 1934.
"I don't believe there's any cloud that hangs over me, I think there's nothing but sunshine hanging over me."
-- Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the day before he and his chief of staff were arrested on federal charges of bribery and wire fraud.
Politics in Illinois, as in Louisiana, has always been more evocative of devils than angels. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama's critics said he was a typical product of a seamy political culture. The arrest of Blagojevich, a fellow Democrat, validates the claims about Illinois. It also gives Obama a chance to prove he has managed to tiptoe through the sewer without getting dirty.
Except for something that took place in 2001, this expose might not have happened. The event was President Bush's appointment, on the recommendation of Illinois Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, of Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois.
The veteran prosecutor was an unlikely choice for the job, since he grew up in New York and spent his entire career there. But Sen. Fitzgerald didn't trust anyone homegrown to attack the corruption that has long infected Illinois government and politics. Patrick Fitzgerald was the best outsider he could find.
Oddly enough, Blagojevich owes his rise to the U.S. attorney's pursuit of graft. It was Fitzgerald who convicted several associates of Gov. George Ryan. Ryan opened the door for Blagojevich by deciding, with his own indictment looming, not to run again. After winning the 2002 Democratic primary, Blagojevich then had the good fortune to face a Republican challenger cursed to be named Ryan.
Three of the last eight Illinois governors have served time in prison. So the stunning part is not that Blagojevich may be flamboyantly dishonest, but that he is such a dunce. When Obama vacated his Senate seat, the governor clumsily maneuvered to trade it for something he wanted -- a Cabinet post, a job for his wife, campaign contributions or a sinecure in the private sector -- even though he knew he was under federal investigation.
More bizarre still was his alleged plan for better press coverage -- demanding that Tribune Co. fire the Chicago Tribune editorial board in exchange for state help in the sale of Wrigley Field. As a member of said board, I'm glad that someone thinks newspapers are not obsolete.