Building A Mystery

About Gov. Blagojevich’s arrest for trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat: I understand that Obama comes in for some close scrutiny because he came up politically in the same city and state amid the same players, in a system full of, shall we say, ethically challenged people. No matter how honest and principled he may be, of course it’s only natural that the media would be asking questions, and probing to see if Obama or anyone close to him knew what Blagojevich was doing or was in any way implicated.

I get that.

But right-leaning bloggers and media sources have been all over this story for three full days now without finding any substantive or credible evidence that the president-elect had or has any connection to Blagojevich or his corrupt circle beyond knowing who they were and maybe exchanging handshakes and pleasantries at obligatory party events.

So now the news narrative is shifting from “Are there meaningful connections between Obama and Blagojevich?” to “How can we keep the story alive that there might be meaningful connections between Obama and Blagojevich?”

Politico in particular has been relentless in its pursuit of every possible permutation of the “There is no indication that Obama was involved, but if it does turn out that Obama or his staff ever talked to or met with or campaigned for any people who were involved, it might be a problem for him if it looks like he might have known or was in a position to know that he may have been associating himself with Gov. Blagojevich — especially if he knew that the governor was bribing and extorting contenders for his Senate seat” story.

This morning, wingnut bloggers reacted with dismay and anger to a Washington Post article about Obama’s efforts, going back a year or more, to keep Blagojevich at a distance. The reporter, Eli Saslow, writes:

Long before federal prosecutors charged Blagojevich with bribery this week, Obama had worked to distance himself from his home-state governor. The two men have not talked for more than a year, colleagues said, save for a requisite handshake at a funeral or public event. Blagojevich rarely campaigned for Obama and never stumped with him. The governor arrived late at the Democratic convention and skipped Obama’s victory-night celebration at Chicago’s Grant Park.

Even though they often occupied the same political space — two young lawyers in Chicago, two power brokers in Springfield, two ambitious men who coveted the presidency — Obama and Blagojevich never warmed to each other, Illinois politicians said. They sometimes used each other to propel their own careers but privately acted like rivals. Blagojevich considered Obama naive and pretentious and dismissed his success as “good luck.” Obama disparaged Blagojevich for what he viewed as his combativeness, his disorganization and his habit of arriving at official events half an hour late.

Paul Mirengoff is indignant [emphasis mine]:

But Obama did not avoid people like Blogojevich, nor did he avoid Blagojevich himself. Saslow’s piece is called “Obama Worked to Distance Self From Blagojevich Early On.” Distancing yourself from someone is not the same thing as avoiding him.

Even Saslow has to admit that Obama played ball with Blagojevich, serving Blago’s 2002 campaign for governor as “an informal adviser.” Saslow describes their relationship while Obama was in the state Senate as an “awkward, arranged marriage.” So Obama did not avoid Blagojevich, or even distance himself from the governor while they were both engaged in Illinois politics. At best, Obama felt uncomfortable with having to play ball with Blago.

Distancing yourself from someone is not the same thing as avoiding him? What is that about? And can you imagine what the response would be from the right if such fatuousness came from a liberal’s keyboard?

Turns out that when you work in a corrupt political organization, you sometimes come into contact with corrupt politicians. So if you’re judging Obama’s integrity by whether he ever “had to play ball” with Blago, you’ll come to predictable conclusions. M.J. Rosenberg suggests a different measure:

From their earliest dealings, Obama made clear his contempt for a politician he clearly believed was crooked. Blago hated Obama for looking down at him, but Obama did and the governor knew it. (It is in the tapes).

It is not easy for up-and-coming politicians to avoid contact with their own state’s political machine and still rise to the top. I think Obama was able to do it the same way FDR avoided the stench that surrounded Tammany Hall. FDR had his own Blago case. At the very moment he was nominated for President, the Mayor of New York, Jimmy Walker, (FDR was governor) was exposed as a crook and FDR had to lead the effort to remove him while running for President.

The Walker case might have hurt FDR. After all, although he was not Tammany, he could not have risen to the governorship without any contact with it. Republicans screamed that if FDR was the governor, and Walker was his Mayor, surely FDR was tainted.

He wasn’t and the public never believed that he was. Why? Because they understood that Roosevelt was honest. They knew by looking at him that he was not a product of Tammany. He was, in fact, the opposite.

Same with Obama. In the end, the Blago scandal testifies to Obama’s integrity. From Chicago, he still managed to stay unbossed and unbought. That is considerably easier in, say, Minneapolis or Des Moines. Obama did that in Chicago.

Fox Chicago News ominously announces a major scoop: Fox reporter Craig Wall “has learned about possible conversations between a top Obama aide and the governor regarding the open senate seat. …”

Wow. Rahm better hope he looks good in stripes:

The attempt by President-elect Barack Obama to distance himself from the scandal erupting in Illinois took a big hit last night with this exclusive report from Chicago’s Fox affiliate. Sources within the investigation say that Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, spoke with Governor Rod Blagojevich on “multiple occasions” about the Senate succession that Blagojevich had wanted to sell to the highest bidder — and that Emanuel will likely be on the FBI wiretaps[.]

Now, as David Kurtz points out, “… it would be really odd if the Obama team was not talking to Blagojevich about the seat.”

And since, number one, “… [t]here is only a problem if there was some sort of negotiated pay-for-play, or if staffers were solicited for bribes and failed to report it to the proper authorities,” and number two, there is absolutely no reason to believe such was the case, apart from wanting it to be the case, why suggest that it was?

I think I answered my own question.

On the surface, this makes sense. The notion that Obama and his team had nothing to say about the Senate appointment and had no contact whatsoever with Blagojevich was ridiculous. Emanuel, with his ties to Illinois politics and his status as Obama’s right-hand man, would make the most likely candidate to handle those negotiations.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Emanuel knew about Blagojevich’s efforts to extort payment for the selection, but it puts a damper on the idea that Emanuel tipped off the feds, too.  It wouldn’t take “multiple” meetings for Emanuel to decide to squeal.  If Emanuel continued meeting with Blagojevich, that indicates some kind of negotiating was happening, and that would strongly suggest that Emanuel was working on Blagojevich’s terms.

It’s still possible that Emanuel was working with the feds, but why stay silent about it now?  They’ve already arrested Blagojevich.  Emanuel could now say, “I helped Patrick Fitzgerald when I saw something wrong and worked with them to get him to make explicit statements,” rather than spend this week ducking reporters.  The “sources within the investigation” would hardly want to make a cooperating witness look bad, either. Emanuel has been acting like someone advised him to keep quiet to keep from making incriminating public statements, and this may be the reason why.

If the facts aren’t cooperating, there’s always fantasy:

Yesterday, on MSNBC, Republican Doug Heye, who blogs for The Hill, told viewers that Rod Blagojevich is Barack Obama’s “good friend.” When anchor Tamron Hall challenged Heye to defend the claim, he couldn’t.

But here is good news. On Tuesday, December 9, at 5:25 pm, soon after the Blagojevich story broke, Memeorandum looked like this. This was Memeorandum at 7:25 am on December 10. And 12 hours later. At 7:25 the following morning, Blagojevich coverage took up less than half of the page, and there was actually a sizeable clump of stories — immediately below the last Blagojevich article — about Obama’s choice of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu for Energy Secretary. And I’m really excited, because I hadn’t even seen that news until just now! A physicist to head the Department of Energy instead of an energy industry hack! My god, what a wonder; what a marvel!

But I digress. This was Memeorandum yesterday, at 7:25 pm.

And now, folks, sit up especially straight. This morning, at 7:25 am, the Blagojevich Pay to Play story lost its place at the top of Memeorandum’s front page — pushed down by  Senate “Country First” Republicans’ killing off a $14 billion aid package to save the U.S.  automotive industry and three million American jobs.

Joy and happiness!

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