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Obama and the Convicted Felon

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Chicago's sordid political machine churned out another felon last week. Ho hum. That's business as usual in the Windy City, unfortunately. As news bulletins blared the latest political casualty, Northsiders and Southsiders alike shrugged—seemingly inured to the steady stream of arrests, indictments and convictions that too often define what Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass aptly terms "The Chicago Way." This conviction, however, represents more than an average garden-variety corruption scandal. The demise of crooked businessman and political fixer Tony Rezko may very well end the political career of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Perhaps more significantly, it adds another name to the expanding roster of Sen. Barack Obama's disgraced friends, donors, and associates.

Prior to Wednesday's verdict, the national Obamedia paid scant attention to the relationship between their preferred candidate and Mr. Rezko, who was convicted on 16 of 24 federal counts. A jury found Obama's longtime friend and financier guilty of aiding and abetting bribery, mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering—all of which will likely contribute to a lengthy prison sentence. The federal convict and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee have known each other for the better part of two decades, with the former raising approximately $250,000 for the latter's various campaigns. After Rezko first offered Obama a job in the early 1990s, a friendship and political alliance was born; the two men shared dinners, joint outings with their wives, and a lucrative political network. Rezko served on Obama's financing committee during his 2004 campaign, helping to raise approximately $160,000 for the aspiring U.S. Senator. Shortly thereafter, dark clouds began to gather over Chateau Rezko.

By 2005, Rezko's shady business deals and alleged illegal activities had been widely reported in the Chicago press. Even so, Obama decided it would be a wise move to enter into a major property deal with his scandal-tainted friend. On the very same day Obama paid $1.65 million (a substantially smaller sum than the asking price) for his Hyde Park mansion, another buyer purchased an adjoining lot for $625,000—an additional sum the Obama's could not afford. The new owner? Rezko's wife, Rita, who somehow managed to secure the property despite an annual salary of $37,000. A short while later, Mrs. Rezko generously sold a strip of her new property to Obama so he could build a fence he had been hoping for. At the time of this second transaction, Obama admits he knew Rezko was experiencing some "legal problems." Nonetheless, the deal went through and a lovely wrought-iron fence—paid for by Rezko—was erected between the two properties. The whole episode worked out pretty nicely for Obama. One might even call it an "exchange we can believe in."

Now with Rezko facing a decidedly different type of iron fence, his deep ties to Obama demand further examination. The scandal presents three problems for Senator Obama:

First, anyone who watches Law & Order knows that the State constantly seeks to land the biggest fish possible. Convicted felons are sometimes offered legal carrots to help the prosecution produce even bigger scalps higher up the ladder. In this particular case, the likeliest prize is Gov. Blagojevich, whose ethical bankruptcy came to light during Rezko's trial. Even so, if Rezko has any dirt on Obama, such information could prove quite valuable to a man facing decades in federal prison. Any public figure with skeletons in Rezko's closet should be sweating over the thought of Rezko playing Deal or No Deal with US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. Then again, given Rezko's sterling reputation, pristine character, and undying loyalty, I'm sure Obama has nothing to worry about.

Second, this relationship also shows Obama is not only a typical politician, but a typical Chicago politician. When the crooked machine produces hundreds of thousands in campaign dollars, a series of prestigious elected offices, and an elegant home, one doesn't ask too many questions. Obama was more than happy to ride the gravy train, even after he got a noxious whiff of corruption. That's the Chicago Way.

This also exposes Obama's promise of a "new kind of politics" and squeaky-clean ethics as empty platitudes. His campaign website devotes an entire page to ethics, boasting—somewhat disingenuously —that Obama is the only major candidate who rejects fundraising dollars from lobbyists. He says he's "done more than any other candidate in this race" to take on lobbyists and corruption. Evidently those evil lobbyists are the primary threat to clean governmental ethics, as opposed to corrupt fundraisers who help candidates seal multimillion dollar property deals. As the campaign moves forward, every time Democrats try to tar John McCain for some nebulous tie to a lobbyist, the Republican can fire back, "Last time I checked, my longtime friends and fundraisers aren't in federal prison."

Finally, and most strikingly, Rezko's downfall raises more alarming questions about Barack Obama's judgment. This would be less of an issue for Obama if he hadn't just traipsed across the country for months speaking at podiums with the slogan "Judgment To Lead" emblazoned on the front. Experience is overrated, Obama tells us. In fact, his paper-thin presidential resume and far-left voting record really aren't that important compared to his stellar judgment. This argument is precisely the reason why Obama's gripes about "distracting" media scrutiny of his associations should fall on deaf ears. One of the few ways to cut through his enigmatic persona is to study the people with whom he's surrounded himself for decades. The list isn't reassuring: Rev. Wright, Father Pfleger, William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Rashid Khalidi, and Tony Rezko.

Obama recently expressed shock that his church had become the subject of political controversy. Really? Was there another reason why he uninvited Jeremiah Wright to join him onstage at his presidential announcement last year? When he finally threw Wright under the bus upon hearing a regurgitation of Wright's craziest hits at the National Press Club, he soberly stated the raving reverend was "not the same man I knew 20 years ago." When asked about the Rezko verdict, Obama again claimed to be baffled: "This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew," he lamented. Sound familiar?

One has to wonder if Obama believes the American people to be a bunch of patsies. Perhaps he confuses the rest of us with his most ardent supporters, who reflexively applaud everything he says or does. The majority of American voters aren't yet mesmerized by his spell, and this cynical act is starting to wear thin. He expects us to believe that he's been an innocent sheep in the midst of barely-disguised wolves for decades, and that he was oblivious to their true nature all the while. He seems to think we're buying the canned line from his internal TelePrompter that reads, "This isn't the [fill in name of disgraced friend/radical associate] that I've known for [X] years." When does this refrain become inoperable?

Maybe it's cynical and unfair to assume that Obama is a liar who's simply spinning tales in order to get elected. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at his word: He's a naive man who consistently, and badly, misjudges the character of even his closest associates. If he's truly unable to discern the intentions of Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko after decades-long friendships, it's completely reasonable to worry about his ability to effectively deal with antagonistic world leaders whose subversive intentions pose grave threats to world peace.

The Rezko aftermath forces Americans to wonder: Is Obama lying, or is he just clueless? Neither answer inspires much confidence in his ability to effectively lead our nation.

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