10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wanted: Suitable Senate Candidate

If you think things are bad now in Illinois, with Blagojevich and Burris and Jesse Jackson Jr. and who knows what else, it could be worse.

Here's a three-paragraph history lesson:

In the 1920s, the U.S. Senate refused to seat the man appointed by the governor -- for two years! -- because of corruption allegations over his fundraising. And on top of that, the governor who appointed him to the vacant seat was indicted and tried -- while in office! -- over a (separate) massive embezzlement scheme. He was acquitted, and completed his term. And four of the jurors -- wink, wink -- got state jobs for their troubles.

The senate appointee, Frank Smith, had defeated the incumbent in the Republican primary in 1926. When the incumbent died before his term expired, Gov. Len Small, a brazen charlatan who makes Rod Blagojevich seem comparatively timid, appointed the duly-elected Smith to the seat the same day.

However, allegations over how Smith had raised the money to mount his campaign -- namely, have it bankrolled by a utilities magnate Smith regulated in his previous job as chairman of the state's commerce commission -- caused the senate to refuse to accept Smith's credentials. Smith eventually gave up -- o, for a simpler era, when some crooks had the humility to realize when to go away.

But that was then and this is now and even with Burris not contending for the seat in next year's election, a survey of the scene does not inspire confidence.

No one in the race or mentioned as a candidate has the resume or experience or heft required of a U.S. Senator. In fact, the 'bench' in Illinois is pretty weak right now, among both Democrats and Republicans.

This is in part due to the decimation caused by the rampaging corruption of the Blagojevich-Ryan years, sparing no party from being tarred -- if it's not participation, it's complicity, tolerance or ignorance, none of them good foundations for an electoral platform.

But we still need a Senator, so what's to be done?

The first temptation is to call someone out of retirement -- Peter Fitzgerald, Abner Mikva, Dawn Clark Netsch, Adlai Stevenson -- and ask them to preside over a blue-ribbon restoration of confidence in the precincts of power. I doubt any of them, alas, would be interested.

Then there's the temptation to draft Patrick Collins, who has demonstrated himself to be above reproach. He, alas, steadfastly disavows interest in running for office.

His protege on the Illinois Reform Commission, David Hoffman, is in the race and certainly demonstrates one of the chief attributes a Senator should possess: courage. But Hoffman lacks the other necessary bona fides, such as registering in the public consciousness. Even Collins lacks on that count; he's not well-known in many of the state's 102 counties.

So we need courage, statewide name recognition, passion and someone free from the taint of scandal.

Maybe we do need a dream team of Fitzgerald, Mikva, Netsch and Stevenson and some others to swoop back in and give us a reprieve from ourselves.

And during that time, let's cultivate a next-gen class of pols who don't write smarmy letters to get rules bent for staffers or donors or cronies, who don't cut deals that cause federal prosecutors to perk up, who aren't beholden to a Daley or a Madigan or a DuPage machine, who don't sit idly and mutely while corruption flourishes, and who are willing to fight for all of the people of Illinois. I'm sure those people are out there.

We just need to give them a little sunlight and water to take root and flourish.

The last great -- truly great -- Senator Illinois had was a guy who went to Washington with one prior elective office, that of Chicago alderman. Can you imagine any of the 50 sitting alderman advancing to the United States Senate? And he got there by defeating a popular incumbent.

How'd he do it?

He campaigned tirelessly for six months -- renting a sound truck and traveling more than 40,000 miles around the state. He let the people of Illinois know him, know what he stood for, see him in the flesh and be able to trust him. He wanted it, and he wanted to put his ideas into action.

His name was Paul Douglas.

There are other Paul Douglases out there today. We must encourage them to enter the arena.