Rarely is the debunking of conventional wisdom more apropos than in response to certain widely held misconceptions about the former governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, and the current governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich. Indeed, the analogous scandals surrounding both men produced two of the year's biggest fallacies.
FALLACY #1: SPITZER WAS TARGETED FOR CRIMES HE COMMITTED
The case against Spitzer isn't even a case, at least not a legal one. That is, the ex-governor has not been charged with any crime, let alone convicted of one. Moreover, no alleged victim, co-perpetrator or witness has accused him of anything. I would have thought that the absence of an accuser would be more than sufficient cause for lawyers and reporters to refrain from saying Spitzer acted unlawfully. Since those who have been charged but not convicted are entitled to a presumption of innocence, it seems Spitzer should get an even greater benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, bloggers such as Scott Greenfield and Glenn Greenwald have asserted, as if it were an undisputed fact requiring no corroboration, that Spitzer and the women he allegedly hired are criminals.
Everyone knows it's customary to distinguish convicts, indictees, and arrestees from mere suspects in news reports and analysis. Aside from basic fairness, the point is to avoid lawsuits. Spitzer, of course, isn't going to sue, but a smear isn't excusable just because the vilified individual is too compromised to pursue legal remedies. Whatever the motives or consequences might be, coverage of the ex-governor's predicament has been marked by a flagrant, ubiquitous and unexplained departure from well-established standards. (In an earlier post, I linked to aspersions cast about Spitzer and so-called prostitutes in mainstream publications.) The public's acceptance of the media's delinquency is itself a phenomenon worth examining. What is it about Spitzer and supposed call girls that causes otherwise fair-minded people to condone glaringly unscrupulous journalism?
Despite all the disparaging punditry, evidence against Spitzer is extremely scarce. All we know is he paid a lot of money to an escort agency, Ashley Dupre once consorted with him in Washington and an appointment booker said he likes "to do things" that aren't "safe." But Spitzer could have engaged in perfectly legal sadomasochism (which might explain the reference to dangerous behavior), or had consensual, unrecompensed sex (apart from paid companionship) with his hirelings. After all, he is an attorney who made elaborate arrangements concerning payment, transportation and hotel accommodations, so there's nothing far-fetched about the notion that Spitzer also took the trouble to make sure the intimate stage of any extramarital encounter he had was conducted lawfully.
Because he prosecuted operators of prostitution rings zealously when he was the Attorney General of New York, Spitzer's apparent hypocrisy has engendered more outrage than his stalking of major-league criminals has elicited praise. Although most observers have been too busy indulging in schadenfreude to notice, it's probably no coincidence that Spitzer's perceived comeuppance occurred three weeks after the Washington Post published his editorial about predatory loans in which he wrote: "Not only did the Bush administration do nothing to protect consumers, it embarked on an aggressive and unprecedented campaign to prevent states from protecting their residents from the very problems to which the federal government was turning a blind eye." The headline - "Predator Lenders' Partner in Crime" - refers to the Decider-in-Chief himself. According to investigative journalist Greg Palast: "Spitzer was in Washington to launch a campaign to take on the Bush regime and the biggest financial powers on the planet."
Rather than dwell on what he might have done in a hotel room, we should applaud Spitzer's bravery and delve into why he was targeted. Unbeknownst to most, the tide might actually be turning in that direction. It's barely been reported that the House Financial Services Committee is tentatively planning to hold hearings early in 2009 to find out whether or not the Bush administration's investigation of Spitzer was more about political retribution than the pursuit of justice.
FALLACY #2: BLAGOJEVICH SHOULDN'T APPOINT OBAMA'S REPLACEMENT
While it's clear from transcripts of secretly recorded conversations that Blagojevich is possessed with an unsavory lust for loot, it's not so clear his sleaziness is particularly rare among politicians, especially in Illinois, where three of the last seven governors ended up in prison. So it's amusing to watch the state's public servants feign shock and indignation while each tries to denounce Blagojevich more venomously than the others. As Cato's Jim Harper puts it: "It is the norm - not some outrageous deviation - to exchange political favors for help with attaining higher office, including campaign contributions."
Out of all the drama queens who are insisting that the governor be occupationally exiled with the utmost urgency lest he (gasp!) select Barack Obama's replacement, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has emerged as the most absurd. Even though impeachment hearings are already in the works, Madigan asked the Illinois Supreme Court to immediately remove Blagojevich from office on the laughable grounds that he "is unable to distinguish between his financial interests and his official duties and between illegal acts and legal conduct, rendering him incapable of legitimately exercising his authority as Governor." In other words, the governor is crazy, although no evidence of Blago's alleged mental incapacity is contained in Madigan's brief. A stronger argument can be made that Madigan should immediately be relieved of her job, as she is obviously unable to distinguish between her imagined expertise in the field of psychology and her official duties as Attorney General.
In a letter he sent to Blagojevich, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid demonstrated his contempt for due process by threatening to deep-six anyone the governor might appoint. Reid wrote: "Please understand that should you decide to ignore the request of the Senate Democratic Caucus and make an appointment we would be forced to exercise our Constitutional authority under Article I, Section 5, to determine whether such a person should be seated." But the Supreme Court has ruled that "in judging the qualifications of its members Congress is limited to the standing qualifications prescribed in the Constitution." The Constitution certainly does not set forth that a senator must meet the subjective approval of a specious coot from Nevada to be qualified. What it requires is that the officeholder be at least 30-years-old, a citizen for nine or more years and a resident of the represented state.
The standstill between Blago and his fellow Democrats is a problem of the party's making. It would actually be best for everybody if the governor were to fulfill his obligation to choose a new senator. The extent to which a Blagojevich appointee might be hamstrung as a result of the appointer's soiled reputation, is largely up to the Democratic majority. The members can simply choose to drop their self-defeating plans to treat even a pure and competent newcomer as if he or she is inherently tainted. If there are no concrete negatives besides the stigma of an ostracized governor having exercised his legitimate authority, the appointee should be warmly welcomed to the senate, and given every opportunity to serve with honor. Given the extra scrutiny to which a Blago pick would surely be subjected, public and collegial confidence should ultimately be higher - not lower - than usual, as long as the appointee passes muster based on standard criteria. Who would benefit if Obama's former seat were to instead be kept vacant for months?
If Blagojevich names Obama's successor, the eminent legislators of Illinois will still conduct impeachment hearings, unless party bosses determine that impeachment must be "taken off the table," as they did in the face of the Bush administration's probable crimes. Dick Cheney claims the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program was carried out with the enthusiastic support of congressional Democrats, none of whom have denied complicity. Maybe Madigan's shameless attempt to bypass the impeachment process was likewise motivated by a desire to keep the malfeasance of her state's lawmakers under wraps. Now that the Attorney General's legal "reasoning" has been rejected by the court, it will be interesting to see exactly how she and all the theoretically untainted ones proceed.
On December 8 Blagojevich announced the State of Illinois will suspend business with Bank of America until credit is restored to the shuttered Republic Windows & Doors company in Chicago where workers were staging a sit-in at the time. The governor was arrested on federal corruption charges the following day. That Spitzer and Blagojevich were both crushed just after they dared to challenge the nation's mightiest financial kingpins, does not in and of itself establish a governmental modus operandi. But the Justice Department's 76-page complaint against the Illinois governor reveals another parallel to the Spitzer takedown: The evidence against Blago is much thinner than what published reports suggest. Furthermore, the general hysteria encircling both fall guys seems designed to conceal systemic corruption on a grand scale. If only the fourth estate would spend more time connecting the dots, and less time promoting demagogues.