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Dumb and Dumber

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, December 12, 2008

Trying to sell a Senate seat is dumb. Not realizing that getting caught means you have to give up your seat as governor is dumber.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's business-as-usual attitude the day after he was indicted for putting a price on Barack Obama's Senate seat -- on tape no less -- provides even more evidence, if any more were needed, that the guy is not only corrupt and craven, but dumb as they come. The presumption of innocence may protect the governor when it comes to trial, but it just doesn't apply to public officials caught on tape courting corruption.

Eliot Spitzer couldn't survive and all he did was use his own money to pay a hooker. It was certainly stupid of him to assume his private life would stay private once he became governor of New York (and had taken on half of Wall Street), but he didn't abuse the public trust. Blagojevich did. He not only made a fool of himself, but of the voters of his state.

It was apparently no secret that the Illinois governor played on the wrong side of the tracks. His own father-in-law, who helped him get elected, was sufficiently disgusted with what he saw once Blagojevich took over that he spoke out against him after his first year in office. Patricia, Rod's wife and partner in political hardball, stopped speaking to her own father. She might have fared better had she kept talking to her dad and told her husband off.

So how does a guy who is transparently crooked, hopelessly arrogant and dumb as a door manage not only to get elected, but re-elected as governor of a major state? Of course, he didn't have very big shoes to fill: Blagojevich's predecessor is currently residing in a correctional facility in Terre Haute. Maybe they'll be roommates. Governors Row.

It's not that there aren't any decent politicians or would-be politicians in Illinois. That the land of Lincoln could simultaneously produce a Rod Blagojevich and a Barack Obama is testament to the fact that politics attracts people from both ends of the spectrum -- the very bright and the very stupid, those committed to public service and those committed to private gain. The challenge is to attract more of the former and fewer of the latter.

Many of those who sought public office in the '70s and '80s would cite John Kennedy as the reason. Perhaps the most famous picture of Bill Clinton is the one of him shaking hands with President Kennedy as Arkansas' Boys State representative. Kennedy inspired a generation to believe that the best thing a smart and talented person could do was serve the public. When I first started teaching, many of my students (including Eliot Spitzer) would seek me out for advice on how to go about launching a career in politics (I told Eliot to go be a prosecutor). The smartest kids wanted to follow in Jack Kennedy's path.

Then all that changed. Smart kids wanted to make money, go to Hollywood, run businesses or make movies. Smart kids wanted to be agents or directors, not governors or senators. They saw public officials lose every shred of privacy, get raked over the coals in increasingly nasty campaigns and make less money than their peers, and the question I got asked most became not who I knew on Capitol Hill, but did I have any connections at Disney.

Politics is still a nasty business. Politicians still don't have any privacy, and campaigns are not getting more polite. But President-elect Obama has the opportunity to inspire a new generation to understand that while the price of political engagement may be high, the benefits are higher still -- not in terms of dollars (sorry, Rod), but in terms of satisfaction.

No one would have wished for Blagojevich to blow up on the eve of Obama's inauguration. But the governor's recognition that he would get nothing but gratitude from the Obama people for nominating someone they favored to fill his Senate seat is a testament to what politics should be. Gratitude is all he should get.

The people of Illinois need to figure out how to move this guy offstage fast. They deserve better, and Blagojevich deserves the boot.

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