Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Honest Abe" Blagojevich

By DeWayne Wickham

Moments after accusing Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich of heading a "political corruption crime spree," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald delivered his punch line. Blagojevich's conduct "would make (Abraham) Lincoln roll over in his grave," the federal prosecutor said.

Connecting Blagojevich, who is arguably the state's most infamous politician, with Lincoln, Illinois' most revered, is good political theater. Lincoln is considered one of America's greatest presidents. He led this country during the Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the freeing of slaves in the Confederate states. His reputation for honesty earned him the nickname, "Honest Abe."

Despite being elected as a reformer, Blagojevich's political resume is far from impressive. He's allegedly been the subject of a federal investigation for some time before he was taken into custody by FBI agents a few days ago. Fitzgerald said the arrest came after the governor conspired to award the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Under Illinois law, Blagojevich has the power to name someone to serve the remaing two years of Obama's term.

Fitzgerald also said Blagojevich tried to get the Chicago Tribune to fire several editorial writers who had angered him in return for state help in selling Wrigley Field, a baseball stadium the newspaper owns.

His Lincoln line was meant to draw a sharp distinction between Blagojevich and this nation's 16th president. But when it comes to political wheeling and dealing, Lincoln and Blagojevich have more in common than Fitzgerald, apparently, knows.

When Republicans gathered in Chicago in May 1860 to pick their presidential candidate, one of Lincoln's floor managers was Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill. Lincoln won the nomination on the third ballot. But that victory came only after Medill promised a member of the Ohio delegation that Lincoln would give the state's favorite son candidate - Salmon P. Chase - "anything he wants" in return for Ohio's votes, journalism historian Harry J. Maihafer wrote in his book, "War of Words: Abraham Lincoln & the Civil War Press."

Another one of Lincoln's floor managers won over the backing of Pennsylvania delegates by promising that their candidate, Simon Cameron, would be named secretary of war if Lincoln won the presidency, Maihafer wrote.

Although Lincoln publicly maintained he would "make no contracts" to get the nomination, he honored the deals his floor managers made. Chase was appointed treasury secretary and Cameron was made secretary of war and later, ambassador to Russia.

The deals that gained Lincoln the Republican Party's presidential nomination fall short of the pay-to-play scheme that Blagojevich is alleged to have hatched. But, so far, Blagojevich's offense appears to be one of more talk than action. Lincoln, on the other hand, actually traded Cabinet positions for his own political gain.

"The tapes reveal that Governor Blagojevich wanted a number of things in exchange for making the appointment to the Senate seat - an appointment as secretary of health and human services or an ambassadorship, an appointment to a private foundation, a higher paying job for his wife or campaign contributions," Fitzgerald said at his news conference.

Of course, Lincoln and Blagojevich are not kindred souls. The Illinois governor has shown no signs of greatness - not even as a grifter. While Lincoln, or at least his surrogates, went a lot further than Blagojevich in their political horse-trading without being subjected to arrest, they did it for political not personal gain.

Unfortunately for Blagojevich, while he lives in the "Land of Lincoln," he inhabits a far different political environment than the one that put Lincoln in this nation's highest office.

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