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Blago's Pay to Play Soap Opera

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Chicago -- It became pretty clear Monday that we will shortly hear the first surefire hit recording from Chicago's boffo political soap opera, "Pay to Play." It will only whet the nation's appetite for the entire cast album assembled by the master wiretappers at the FBI.

The chief prosecutor asked a federal judge to allow an Illinois legislative panel to have portions of four phone conversations involving Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a top fundraiser and a lobbyist as the panel pursues possible impeachment of the governor. If the judge says yes next Monday, as is likely, a national audience can listen in as early as the panel's next day hearing.

For newspaper and TV editors and producers craving bonafide news during the holiday doldrums, that's a welcome, even exhilarating, prospect. For Blagojevich, the cocoon of Rudyard Kipling's words aside, it's not. For President-elect Barack Obama, it's an annoyance, focusing attention again on his state's political follies.

For sure, the topic discussed in the four conversations is not one of those grabbing headlines worldwide: "Blago" allegedly hurling F-bombs and trying to hawk the vacant U.S. Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama; an alleged attempt to can a newspaper editorial writer in exchange for state help in selling a baseball stadium; or the governor allegedly trying to extort a children's hospital executive for campaign contributions in return for releasing already-appropriated state funds for the institution.

No, this one is about more garden variety alleged corruption, namely trying to put the arm on a contributor in return for Blagojevich signing a bill to parcel casino revenue to the horse racing industry. Suffice it to say that the contributor presumably had interest in the legislation (indeed, he was identified as a top racetrack executive by some media outlets Monday evening).

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is willing to offer an appetizer from the FBI's audio banquet because he doesn't think disclosure of this snippet undermines his ongoing investigation. Still, we obviously won't know until we hear them yet whether these tapes will constitute the awful, tawdry, leave-Honest Abe-rolling-in-his-grave evidence suggested by Fitzgerald after he arrested, and filed the criminal complaint against, the governor and the governor's then-chief of staff, John Harris.

But it should still be engrossing even if there's the longshot chance that Fitzgerald's interpretation of criminality is hyperbolic and these present just vivid examples of American politics at work, and the unseemly but unavoidable horsetrading inspired by a system in which money dominates.

As the Blagojevich mess plays out, let us not forget that Obama got to the White House with nerve, vision, a message, a very adroit team of strategists, and a universe-breaking $750 million in contributions. Even if we might stipulate that it was all on the up and up, we can suffer a bit of dyspepsia in mulling what's perfectly legal in our system.

Perfectly legal, too, is candid talk about political tactics. And that's why Fitzgerald's request to a judge for approval to release those few tapes generated a certain chagrin on my part. I want the whole cast album now!

It includes, of course, what should be dandy solos by my outgoing congressman, the wickedly astute Rahm Emanuel, discussing various successors both for his House seat, once he splits to become White House chief of staff, and for Obama's Senate slot.

A report compiled by the Obama transition team swears everything is benign and that no quid pro quos were discussed. I reflexively assume a near-metaphysical certainty that Emanuel, knowing full well his friend, the governor, was in growing legal peril, probably stayed 500 miles away from any suggestions that the governor should get something in return for picking an Obama-preferred person for the Senate spot.

And it's all the more doubtful that Emanuel would traverse muddy waters since his new boss, Obama, has held his nose and kept his distance from Blagojevich for quite some time. What, you don't remember a prominent Blagojevich role at the Democratic Convention in Denver. Or you can't recall spotting him on stage during the election night celebration at Chicago's Grant Park?

There were many reasons that Team Obama made sure you didn't.

But I also find it difficult to believe that Emanuel's discussions with Blagojevich and Harris took on some Consumer Reports-like neutrality and lack of passion.

How exactly did Emanuel express the pros and cons of, say, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. replacing Obama? Or of Cheryle Jackson, a little-known president of the Chicago Urban League, former Blagojevich spokesperson and not-ready-for-prime-time-player? Or of Dan Hynes, the very competent if somewhat milquetoast state comptroller? Or of Lisa Madigan, the high-profile, shrewd state attorney general and unabashed Blagojevich foe?

Is it possible that Emanuel, who formally resigned his congressional seat Monday, effective Friday, laid all the strengths and weaknesses out as if he were some bloodless management consultant from Bain & Company, Mitt Romney's old firm? Perhaps but, even though Emanuel is far more complex than the media caricature, it's difficult to imagine his richly profane ways being kept under wraps during all these chats.

Of course, there are many, many more tapes and topics covered in the phone wiretaps and oral intercepts in Fitzgerald's hands. They will presumably first be heard by one or more federal juries in the next year, after requisite indictments are handed down against Blagojevich and others.

But they should keep public policy professors at Harvard's Kennedy School, the University of Chicago, and other esteemed bastions of higher education, content for a long time. They will surely constitute grand material for students seeking insight into how the game of politics really "works."

In fact, you might bet now that the "Pay to Play" cast album will well outlast the prison terms of its many stars.