Politics as usual?
Thursday, August 19th, 2010
Perhaps you're wondering how Democratic celebrity sleaze Rod Blagojevich has managed to escape relatively unscathed from a federal corruption trial, garnering a mere slap on the wrist after being hit with 24 counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion that threatened to put him in the slammer, along with his hair, for the next 415 years.
How is it conceivably possible that the impeached-and-deposed Illinois governor got convicted solely for lying to federal investigators – an offense that, in reality, would put him away for a few months, followed by cushy home detention – despite the fact that the feds in 2008 had taped him doing all kinds of shady business? How could he basically skate on Tuesday – guilty on one count, the jury gridlocked on the other 23 – when it was clear in the profane recordings that he was determined to conduct the public's business in ways that would boost his earnings and career?
Maybe the jury was confused, maybe the instructions from the judge were too complicated, whatever. Those theories abound. But I'd bet above all that Blago was a beneficiary of the DDD syndrome.
The phrase defining deviancy down was coined nearly 20 years ago by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued that the rise in deviant behavior in our culture and politics has numbed us to the point where we frequently dismiss such behavior as routine or even normal.
In other words, it can be tough to nail a politician on criminal corruption charges if the belief persists that "everybody does it." And, by all accounts, the holdout juror in the Blago case was a DDD adherent. As another juror told the press yesterday, "She did not see (the tapes) as a violation of any laws. It was politics."
Many of the courtroom spectators were DDDers, too. Back in early June, Time magazine quoted a married DDD duo. The wife said, "To stay in politics, you have to make deals." The husband said, "That's just politics in Illinois. Nobody knows right from wrong because everyone is doing it and getting away with it."
But there are laws against such behavior, and sometimes the system does work. Philadelphia has also been a hotbed of "pay to play" corruption (with decision-makers skewing their governance to benefit those who pony up money for the decision-makers). The scandal that rocked Philadelphia back in '03, during the Mayor Street era, ultimately yielded 10 criminal convictions.
But, all too often, we are numbed by the hack behavior that seems so endemic. As legal analyst Andrew Cohen mused the other day, "Is it possible that 'routine' politics have become so venal and unbecoming that we cannot distinguish it from official corruption and fraud and obstruction?"
Yes, it is possible. And the DDD syndrome created the opening for Blagojevich to leverage his notoriety, to own his knavery, to market his victimization. You know the guy's drill already – the Donald Trump show, the weekly radio show, the wife who ate a tarantula on TV, the obscene FBI-taped tirades that wound up as downloadable ring tones. (Personally, I'd rather keep my piano jazz ring tone than have people's heads swivel at the sound of Blago ranting, "Only 13 percent of you all out there think I'm doing a good job, so f— all of you!")
And the performance will continue, because the feds are planning to try him again. Yeah, it's somewhat entertaining that he eerily resembles Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather (Carlo was the dirtbag brother-in-law who got strangled in the car by Clemenza), but the fact is, this machine Democratic governor was accused of extorting money from the CEO of a children's hospital, for Pete's sake.
So perhaps it's worth enduring yet another year of Blagomania, just on the chance that he'll finally be held to account and our benumbed political culture will find true north on its moral compass – however briefly, at least until the inevitable debut of the clown prince of corruption's new NBC reality vehicle I'm in Prison, Get Me Out of Here.