When the idea of good government seems a quaint notion

December 14, 2008|By C. Fraser Smith

As with Illinois today, political corruption cast a pall over Maryland in the 1970s. A former governor, Spiro T. Agnew, had resigned the vice presidency in disgrace. Then Gov. Marvin Mandel was on trial for his political life.

Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III imagined a kind of woodshed meeting with two of his illustrious forebears, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Francis Preston Blair, a newspaper editor and adviser to presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln. If these two men appeared before him, he said, he'd point out that he was still there at the "same old stand" - but a bit worried. His own integrity had never been challenged, but he sounded as if he might chuck the whole enterprise anyway. How could any politician escape the taint?

"I don't want my wife and children viewed as the family of a political crook because all politicians are by definition crooks. If it's coming to that, I want the hell out," he said. He stayed in and later rescued the state's honor.

What, we may ask, can be done today in the case of Illinois and Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich? What might Mr. Blair's ancestors have thought about the revelations of the past week? Indeed, what would the less-than-exacting political ancestors of Mr. Blagojevich have said?

Tammany Hall figure George Washington Plunkitt made a distinction between what he called good and bad bosses. "Everybody is talkin' these days about Tammany men growin' rich on graft, but nobody thinks of drawin' the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft. ... Yes, many of our men have grown rich in politics. I have myself. I've made a big fortune out of the game, and I'm gettin' richer every day, but I've not gone in for dishonest graft - blackmailin' gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. - and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics. There's an honest graft, and I'm an example of how it works. I might sum up the whole thing by sayin': 'I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.'"

Mr. Plunkitt had his limits. He was a paragon of good government as measured by the alleged behavior of the Illinois governor. Surely even the Tammany gang would have blushed to see how far their successors had pushed the envelope.

To be sure, the temptations are great and greater as one moves up the ladder. And there will always be those who play at or over the edge of legality.

The wiretapped remarks of the governor suggest a man who assumed that government was there for the opportunities it would offer to make money. When President-elect Barack Obama resigned from the Senate, Mr. Blagojevich had leverage. He could fill the seat with someone willing to pay for it - or take it himself. He might even barter for a Cabinet post.

We in Maryland may be shocked at such high-level chicanery, but we recall that our former governor was still taking payoffs as vice president.

It's important to remember, as challenging as that may be, that most public officials ran because they had ideas, vision, a sense of responsibility akin to the Lees. Some, including the Lees - a family that included two signers of the Declaration of Independence - regarded themselves as custodians of the nation's honor and democratic vitality. The family's record in Virginia had been remarked by none other than George Washington: "I know of no country," he said, "that can produce a family all distinguished as clever men, as our Lees."

The service ideal, very much alive several generations later, kept Blair Lee III in public office even as Mr. Agnew resigned and Marvin Mandel stood trial (Mr. Mandel went to prison, but the conviction was later overturned on a technicality). Later, as acting governor, Mr. Lee governed Maryland for 17 months, managing the affairs of the state with a determination to reclaim its honor.

Illinois has need of such a man or woman now.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-F M. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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