Thursday, October 9, 2008

Bush League

Earlier this week, John Kass penned a curious piece for the Chicago Tribune that argued that if Senator McCain wanted to effectively sow seeds of doubt about Senator Obama, McCain would push on Obama's failure to take on corruption in Mayor Daley's machine in Chicago. Kass titled his editorial "A presidential debate, the Chicago way" A few days later, the Republican National Committee took Kass's advice, and has now released an ad ingeniously titled "Chicago Way"

Mr. Kass has his reasons for taking shots at Obama; they are not terribly compelling, but there are reasons. So I cannot question his motives. And it is also possible to set aside the mythical quality that Mr. Kass assigns to himself -- as the intrepid, incorruptible reporter turning the screws on the hypocritical pol that had been given a free pass by his spineless, fawning colleagues. But what makes Kass's hit job so impressive is the stunning, improbable naivete of the outrage.

Chicago is, unquestionably, a town plagued by corrupt politics. But, in context, Chicago is the Kane County Cougars of political corruption -- it is bush league.

We moved to Washington DC in 1997 and over the last decade have enjoyed a first row view of venality perfected, political corruption unbound. Much of the staggering misappropriation of the public trust has come at the hands of the leadership of my political party, personified by the misadventures of Jack Abramoff and cultivated by Rep. Delay's ingenious K Street Project. The culture of corruption in this city has become so pervasive that few find self-dealing and blatant derivation from the public interest by our public servants to be worthy of extended comment or, gasp, protest.
Witness, for example, the brief coverage of the Department of Interior Office of Inspector General's stunning takedown of the Minerals Management Service -- and only because it described tabloidish escapades of sex and drug use. Otherwise, the work of Inspector Generals throughout federal agencies and the hearings of Congressional oversight committees is routinely ignored by the American public. And that is too bad, because what they almost universally describe are government bureaucracies run amok, fed by a cynical, destructive theory of governance that holds that government service is, by definition, something to be denigrated -- all that matters is the creation of wealth.

Over the last two years, I have sat at a banquet celebrating a high ranking bureaucrat's service to a federal agency, hosted by the industry regulated by the bureaucrat's agency, where the public servant openly lobbied for a position representing the industry before his employer -- after, of course, he spent the necessary time outside of government to meet ethics restrictions. While my stomach turned, my colleagues shrugged their shoulders. I have watched government officials ask, without embarrassment, for help finding jobs in the private sector moments after the bureaucrat was asked to do his or her job. (At the same time, I have also run across a substantial number of government officials that love their jobs, love serving the public, and do a tremendous job despite laboring under this administration). Our local Congressman, Rep. Al Wynn, paid back his constituents for losing a 2008 primary by quitting Congress effective in June of this year to join the law firm of Dickstein Shapiro, thereby allowing him to lobby his former colleagues six months earlier than had he served out his full term. Rep. Wynn is hardly the only member of Congress to take this route, but since we frequently shop beside him at local stores, his decision to put country, well, way down on his priority list hit home.

Thomas Frank's recent book, "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule", is the single best account that I have read of the current environment that defines our nation's capital. Frank ably describes the rise of lobbyists and the massive wealth transfers that have corroded our government over the last decade. In our city, work is not done under the Capitol domes unless the right palms are greased or significant contributions to reelection efforts are made. Every crisis facing Americans is quickly perverted into a vehicle to push some hare-brained initiative that benefits a particular special interest. And all of it is just "the way things are done."

In this context, Mr. Kass's lecture is quaint. It is cute that he has the intestinal fortitude to decry the shenanigans at City Hall. But Mr. Kass misses the bigger point. Because if you want to talk about corruption, you need to look east to comment on anything of consequence. And while some might be distracted by the narrative of historical machine politics, the story that Mr. Kass misses is the culpability of those that sat idly by, at worst, or failed to prevent, at best, the corruption of their party leaders. Mr. Kass can explore Sen. Obama's ties to the underbelly of Chicago all he wants to, but it does not make the narrative any more relevant. On the other side of this election is a man that has been in Washington since 1993. And in our town, Mr. Kass, we offer an American hero inside a nice suit, the Washington way.

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