Rod Blagojevich is the perfect holiday treat for a country fighting off depression. He gift-wraps the ugliness of corruption in the mirthful garb of farce. From a safe distance outside Illinois, it's hard not to laugh at the "culture of Chicago," where even the president-elect's Senate seat is just another commodity to be bought and sold.
But the entertainment is escapist only up to a point. What went down in the Land of Lincoln is just the reductio ad absurdum of an American era where both entitlement and corruption have been the calling cards of power. Blagojevich's alleged crimes pale next to the larger scandals of Washington and Wall Street. Yet those who promoted and condoned the twin national catastrophes of reckless war in Iraq and reckless gambling in our markets have largely escaped the accountability that now seems to await the Chicago punk nabbed by the United States attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.
The Republican partisans cheering Fitzgerald's prosecution of a Democrat have forgotten his other red-letter case in this decade, his conviction of Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Libby was far bigger prey. He was part of the White House Iraq Group, the task force of propagandists that sold an entire war to America on false pretenses. Because Libby was caught lying to a grand jury and federal prosecutors as well as to the public, he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. But President Bush commuted the sentence before he served a day.
Rich rehashed the meltdowns and malfeasances at Enron and Citigroup and compared former Sen. Phil Gramm (who later joined the giant Swiss bank UBS) and Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin (who later went to Citigroup) to O.J. Simpson.
After a while they all start to sound like O. J. Simpson, who when at last held accountable for some of his behavior told a Las Vegas judge this month, "In no way did I mean to hurt anybody." Or perhaps they are channeling Donald Rumsfeld, whose famous excuse for his failure to secure post-invasion Iraq, "Stuff happens," could be the epitaph of our age.
Rich had his own O.J. moment, concluding his column by arguing we should be looking for the real criminals and defending Blagojevich's alleged misdeeds as penne-ante stuff.
Our next president, like his predecessor, is promising "a new era of responsibility and accountability." We must hope he means it. Meanwhile, we have the governor he leaves behind in Illinois to serve as our national whipping boy, the one betrayer of the public trust who could actually end up paying for his behavior. The surveillance tapes of Blagojevich are so fabulous it seems a tragedy we don't have similar audio records of the bigger fish who have wrecked the country. But in these hard times we'll take what we can get.