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Governors Gone Wild!

Posted: 01/12/09 06:02 PM ET

Governors have gone wild!

Politics and scandal go together like champagne and caviar. From Richard Nixon's Watergate to Ronald Reagan's arms-for-hostages to Bill Clinton's perjury on his adultery, the presidency has traditionally been a generous supplier of sex scandals and corruption.

But in the last year or two, governors have been claiming their fair share of the action.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's senate seat appointment, made after his arrest for attempting to sell said seat to the highest bidder, marks the latest in a string of public relations fiascoes embroiling American governors.

Post-arrest, Blagojevich defied calls from his peers to step down for the good of his party and state and instead appointed Roland Burris to the vacant senate seat left by President-elect Barack Obama.

The appointment is legal. Although the Illinois State House of Representatives voted to impeach Blagojevich, to date he is still the governor of Illinois and continues to pardon criminals, sign bills into law, and conduct the day-to-day duties of the governor of Illinois. But Blagojevich's actions make clear that if he's going down, he's taking some of the Democratic party with him.

The appointment begs for a procedural fight, one that would conveniently distract from Blagojevich's legal troubles. Simultaneously, his choice of a reputable African-American politician adds a patina of nobility, however cynical, to the appointment and inoculates it against a fight by Democrats needing the reflected popularity of the nation's first African-American president-elect to solve the nation's fiscal crisis.

Better yet, Burris is a man with a distinguished career, but one who Illinoisans have rejected for public office the last three times he ran. That history, plus the tarnish of being appointed by a governor arrested for corruption, will be a generous gift to any Republican challenger in 2010 -- and Blagojevich knows it. (Initially rebuffing Burris's attempts to join the Senate, the Democrats, dreading an ill-timed procedural showdown and buffeted by fingers-crossed calls of racism by some Republicans, are heading toward admitting Burris to the Senate anyway.)

For the moment, the ever-metastasizing Blagojevich story has overshadowed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's. Conducting himself as the anti-Blagojevich, Richardson earlier this month withdrew as Obama's choice for Commerce Secretary as a result of a federal investigation into "pay to play" accusations involving a state contract given to a company run by a donor to his political action committees.

Then there are the antics of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, formerly known as John McCain's choice for Republican vice presidential nominee. The cardinal rule of a VP nominee is: agree with the candidate at the top of the ticket, at least until the election is won. But Palin spent the last month of the campaign disagreeing with McCain's position on a constitutional amendment on marriage, whether to continue competing for Michigan voters, removing North Korea from the list of terrorist nations, and more. She turned herself into a darling of the right wing of the party at McCain's expense . . . during a presidential campaign.

And none of us forgets former governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey and former governor of New York Eliot Spitzer -- the operative word here being former. Both resigned from office amidst juicy accusations of abuses of power and/or blatant violations of the law.

In August 2004, McGreevey was forced to resign after being threatened with a sexual harassment lawsuit by the man with whom he was having an extramarital affair and whom he had appointed homeland security advisor -- a man who could not gain a security clearance from the U.S. government because he was not a U.S. citizen, but an Israeli. In March of 2008, Spitzer was caught paying for the services of a high-priced call girl.

Of course, governors are not the only ones caught engaging in corruption or sex scandals. Idaho Senator Larry Craig quietly served out the remaining 17 months of his term after making the phrase "wide-stance" famous. Despite being freshly convicted of seven felonies, former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens nearly won re-election in October.

Those who pursue governor and senator seats tend to be ambitious and ego-driven, not least of all because both seats are shortcuts to the White House. My bet is that governors will continue to go wild in 2009. Stay tuned!