After Obama departed with two years left in his term, an egotistical mediocrity named Roland Burris took over. He was appointed by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose alleged efforts to auction off the seat led to the federal corruption trial that began this week.
But with the incumbent unwilling to take his chances with the voters, the office will fall to either Giannoulias or Kirk, who seem to be determined to raise our opinion of Burris.
Giannoulias ran for treasurer in 2006 on the strength of his experience as an officer at Broadway Bank, which it turned out made loans to convicted felons while he was there and was closed down by the government in April. Now he indicates he was fetching coffee when all the bad decisions were made.
By this point, the average Illinoisan, ordered at gunpoint to choose between the two, would reply, "Shoot." It's a familiar dilemma in a place where state government has four branches: executive, legislative, judicial and correctional.
What is it about Illinois? The state has a history of corruption and self-dealing so extensive that it perpetuates itself. Many honest, well-meaning people avoid our political arena for the same reason they avoid swimming in the sewer: It's nasty, and their presence doesn't make it smell any better.
Kirk was notable for avoiding any hint of ethical scandal, but his very distance from the usual muck may have led him astray. He was not satisfied being smarter and better than your run-of-the-mill Illinois politician. He had to make himself out to be a combination of Superman and Beaver Cleaver.
But voters are not expecting greatness or nobility from their senator. They only ask the political gods to send someone who doesn't lie, steal or bargain with corrupt officeholders.
The political gods have given their answer to that prayer: Ha. Ha. Ha.