09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Illinois' Feudal Politics

Between now and November, the Land of Lincoln will welcome scores of national journos on the Barack beat seeking the real inside story of Illinois politics.

Some will wander the alleys of Bridgeport, conjuring the shade of the late Mayor Daley and his cronies.

Others will visit the baking streets of Springfield in the dog days of August, trawling listlessly for metaphors at Lincoln's tomb or the State Fairgrounds.

The truly inspired may sojourn all the way down to Metropolis for the inevitable feature, "In Clark Kent's hometown, Barack is Superman."

Sorry, guys, but if you really want to understand Illinois politics, the place you really need to go is San Gimignano, in the rolling hills of Tuscany.

San Gimignano was built in the Middle Ages, back when Tuscany was riven by a huge, often violent rift between two rival factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

Whatever issues lay behind their feud weren't really important. Over time, the feud took on a life of its own, driving the combatants to duel, poison, and - most important for narrative purposes - build really, really high towers.

The towers were ostensibly designed for storage, but in a pinch, they were extremely handy for pouring boiling oil on the Guelphs (or Ghibellines) massed in the streets below.

The hot-oiled Ghibellines (or Guelphs) responded by building even taller towers, to impress onlookers with their greater power and to facilitate more expansive boiling oil pouring.

Over time, the political differences between Guelph and Ghibelline became so blurred that, when Guelph partisans would see the light and flip sides, their personal enemies on the Ghibelline side would respond by joining the opposing team. (To put this in Illinois terms, it was like Blagojevich suddenly becoming a White Sox fan - and South Siders responding by lining up for bleacher seats at Wrigley Field.)

As the Quattrocento rolled on, the Guelph-Ghibelline game of "no, mine is bigger" resulted in a cluster of picturesque but essentially useless towers in San Gimignano, along with a fair number of city fires ignited by boiling oil. The feud finally fizzled out only when the plague cleared the benches on both sides.

So really -- if you're trying to explain our state's political landscape to a national audience, don't waste your time in Illinois. Go to San Gimignano instead.

And if your editors don't understand why it's worth blowing a gigantic hole in your travel budget to visit a once-powerful city that now stands as a quaint testament to the colossal egos of the long-forgotten men who drained the local economy to continue an ultimately pointless feud -- well, have them give me a call.