So now we have spent the better part of two weeks with the news that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevitch was trying to trade Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat for political contributions and some up front money.
All the usual suspects showed up. The earnest prosecutor professing shock at the sight of a sitting public servant arranging an apparent bribe. The editorialists bemoaning the state of a state where corruption appears endemic. The other politicians running for cover, with those caught on "the tapes" arranging hastily called press conferences to explain that they too were duped by Blago into thinking those "interviews" for the Senate seat were on the up and up. And the defense lawyer telling an incredulous world that his guy is innocent.
Is any of this really news?
We live in a country where it costs, at a minimum, $500,000 to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. If the district is anywhere near a major media market, the cost rises into the multi-millions of dollars. If one wants to run for statewide office in a place like Illinois (or a dozen other big states like New York or California), the cost is in the tens of millions of dollars. If you win, more than half your time while in office must be spent raising money for the reelection.
Over time, this lunacy has produced three sorts of candidates and public servants.
The really rich.
The really famous.
And the really stretched.
The chances of any ordinary upstanding Joe -- even a very talented ordinary upstanding Joe who becomes, say, a Rhodes Scholar -- climbing this greasy pole have become exceedingly slim. For every Obama who works a miracle, there are dozens stymied in a lost Congressional district or a City Council seat from which they will never rise. And even the City Councilmen (and women) are spending all their time raising money in the hopes that lightning may strike.
In 2000, before Hillary Clinton came to New York and told us she wanted to be our Senator, the odds on favorite to run in a Democratic primary for Sen. Moynihan's soon to be vacant post was Westchester County Congresswoman Nita Lowey. That, of course, never happened. What did happen, however, is that, upon news of Lowey's interest in the Senate, three multi-zillionaires sought out the then chair of the Westchester County Democratic Party and told him they were each willing to put up $1 million of their own money to contest Lowey's seat. That could not have been music to the ears of the two dozen County Legislators, town Mayors, Assembly people and State Senators who might have credibly entertained the notion of running for the office, all of whom came from backgrounds that were decidedly modest relative to today's entry fee for a vacant Congressional contest in the New York City suburbs.
It also shouldn't be music to our ears. Because the present system costs us a lot more than money.
It costs us talent.
Harry Truman was a County Judge (the equivalent of a County Executive) in Independence, Missouri before he became a US Senator during the New Deal. The Prendergast political machine made him a Senator because they thought he was not smart enough to be the state tax assessor. In 1944, FDR made him Vice President and in 1945 be assumed the Presidency upon Roosevelt's death. In the '30s, a guy named Thomas P. O'Neill was elected to the Massachusetts General Court, where he served for almost two decades. In 1952, he ran for a Congressional seat in Cambridge, Massachusetts because the sitting Congressman (a guy named John F. Kennedy) had just been elected to the Senate. After serving for more than two decades there, O'Neill became Speaker of the House.
In their time, Truman and O'Neill were instrumental in creating and preserving the modern day middle class, not to mention saving the entire free world.
And neither of them could become President or Speaker of the House in the current political environment.
Today, New York City is being run by a billionaire. He's a nice guy and a very competent Mayor. But he isn't Fiorella La Guardia. Or Ed Koch. Neither of whom could win today either. Across the river in New Jersey, another billionaire is running that state. He is also a nice guy and appears to be a competent Governor. But he isn't Robert Meyner, New Jersey's Governor in the '50s and the guy who actually beat that era's millionaire candidate, Malcom Forbes. He isn't even Bob Torrecelli, who came up the hard way to become New Jersey's US Senator in the late 1990s. And resigned amidst a scandal involving illegal campaign contributions.
Which brings us back to Blago.
There are two basic problems with Rod. One is that he is broke. The other is that he can be corrupt. It is unclear which problem came first, though one suspects there are and have been many politicians over the years who have had their hands in the cookie jar in part because the bill collectors were knocking at the door. This is no excuse, and for every Bagojevich without scruples there is a Chuck Schumer (who is very middle class, rooms with two other Senators in DC, and has never attracted the hint of scandal even as he became a prodigious fundraiser) who proves that morality in the midst of temptation (and an unpaid mortgage) is still possible. As Warren Rudman famously remarked in another context to Oliver North, "Not all of us do it."
But, c'mon, do we have to make it so hard? Millions to win. Millions more to continue to serve. Multiple residences (which is not something your average middle class guy or gal can afford). A fundraising system that requires you to beg at the feet of the rich. And the de riguer perfect family, with of course the two kids, both of whom will have to go to college.
In New York today, we are being treated to the daily spectacle of Caroline Kennedy running to be the (appointive) US Senator once Hillary resigns. Some are huffing and puffing that she isn't "qualified." Others are claiming (correctly) that she would have no chance but for her last name and genealogy. Still others are rebutting the huffers and puffers, noting her philanthropic work, her authorship of multiple books on Constitutional law, and her expertise in education policy in the wake of service as a dollar a year employee of the new NYC educational system (where she has received high marks). But the real question is . . .
Who can raise $70 million for the 2010 election and the 2012 reelection effort, lest the Senate seat be lost to the Democrats?
And with that, Caroline is suddenly looking very "qualified."
In a strange way, Blago and Sweet Caroline are opposite sides of the absurd political coin we are constantly flipping. We want to avoid the rich and famous in favor of the modest but qualified. We make it impossible for anyone but the rich and famous to get the jobs and then keep them. And then when that rare modest man or woman of little means comes along, we expect him or her to turn political somersaults in the form of expert governance by day, fundraising shakedowns by night.
And, oh, by the way, don't neglect the wife (or husband) and the kids. Or the mortgage.
That there are Blago's out there should not be surprising.
That there aren't more of them should be.
In the '90s, I twice ran for Congress and lost. According to the reviews, I gave some great speeches and was very good on the retail side. The press loved me and I even have my "impressively knowledgeable attorney" accolade from the New York Times editorial that I will frame and someday give my kids. I am, however, not a Congressman principally because I couldn't come close to raising the money needed to be competitive, let alone win.
I'd like to think I am not Rod Blagojevich for reasons that have to do with character. But there is at least one other reason I am not Blago.
It's that . . .
I am not a Congressman.