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Allison Silver

Allison Silver

Posted January 5, 2009 | 04:25 PM (EST)

A Lesser Class of Rogue


The stories about Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich have been stunning -- with revelations of his boundless intent on corruption, as well as a knack for unceasing profanity. Yet Blagojevich has also displayed a canny audacity at his recent press conference, when he announced his choice of Roland Burris to fill the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama.

There was something theatrical in Blagojevich's delight, as he attempted to out-maneuver everyone with a choice that would be politically difficult to reject. If anything could, rejecting an up-standing, path-breaking African-American politician to fill the seat of the only black senator in Congress would be a tough call.

Blagojevich is regularly described as the apotheosis of the shady Illinois politician -- a genus that rivals the Louisiana and Jersey City variety for chicanery. At times, he seems a throwback to the days of machine politics, when the favor bank was bigger than the local savings and loan.

But Blagojevich does not come close to the finesse and style embodied by masterful machine politicians. As least, that is, as depicted in one of the best political movies -- The Great McGinty, Preston Sturges's rollicking 1940 satire of American politics.

In a city much like Chicago, Sturges -- usually most comfortable with the escapades of debonair swells -- tells the tale of a shrewd hobo, Dan McGinty, played by Brian Donlevy, who works his way up the local political machine. McGinty first makes his name with the machine boss, played by Akim Tamiroff -- and known throughout only as "The Boss" -- when he engages in industrious voter fraud. McGinty can make $2 a vote -- so he casts 37 votes one Election Day.

McGinty is schooled in various forms of influence-peddling and graft ("If you didn't have graft," one character says, "you'd have a lower class of people in politics."), as he rises from alderman to the city's reform mayor -- the machine controls everything, even the reform party -- and, ultimately, governor. There, with Sturges's usual elan, McGinty blows it by trying to go straight -- to please the woman he loves.

But though McGinty is a petty thug who cons his way through life, as written by Sturges -- who won an Oscar for this screenplay -- he displays more finesse than anything we have seen, or heard, about Blagojevich. McGinty is, simply, a better class of rogue.

Take, for example, a brief exchange in Mayor McGinty's office, between the new mayor and Maxwell, a local businessman. McGinty tells Maxwell, who controls the bus franchise, that the city is going to be running its own buses from now on, since there is a flaw in his contract "big enough to drive a bus through."

As Maxwell tries to figure out what it will take for a "solution of mutual satisfaction," McGinty brings up the benefits of going to a baseball game. He points to a photo of a packed ballpark on his office wall.

"Look at that crowd," McGinty says. He asks Maxwell, casually, how many people he thinks are in the stadium. "Ten thousand?," Maxwell says, "Guess again," says McGinty. "Twenty thousand?" tries Maxwell, as he strives to figure how to get the contract ironed out. "Not even warm," McGinty replies.

Suddenly, Maxwell gets it. "More like 40 thousand?" he gulps. "More like it," McGinty says, "but it ain't it."

He announces triumphantly, "There were 75 thousand in that stadium, Mr. Maxwell." He promises Maxwell that a city official will come to call.

There you have it. Bribe asked for, and settled on. And anyone listening would have no evidence to build a case.

If only Blagojevich had screened this movie and taken notes.