article

12.12.08

In Defense of Chicago Politics

Dan Rostenkowski, the son of a ward boss who became a legendary congressman, on why Gov. Blagojevich shouldn't tar a whole city.

During my career as a public official, I always tried to steer away from the minority of my colleagues who viewed public service as a potential commercial enterprise. They’ve always been there and can be found in state capitols and in Washington.

Springfield, Illinois, is no exception, though I’d also argue that it is hardly unique. When I was in the Illinois General Assembly during the 1950s, I rejected an offer that would have given me a sweetheart stock deal in return for voting to support an expansion of the horseracing season.

I suspect such offers are still being made today. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some politicians found them attractive.

It is painful to recall my situation and, on a personal level, I can sympathize with the pain the governor’s family must feel and can uniquely understand their concerns about what comes next.

At the acme of my career, when I chaired the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax policy, I struggled successfully to restrain myself when a colleague suggested moving forward legislation he thought it would enhance our ability to raising money from oil interests. But such improper suggestions were more likely to come from outside lobbyists than from other elected officials.

Former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski DiesAs a politician who more than a decade ago was disciplined for breaking the rules, I’m still uncomfortable writing about it. It continues to overshadow the positive things I did, including a lonely battle to write and enact tax reform in l986. Apparently bad news trumps.

Similarly, the current story about one apparently corrupt Illinois politician is used to tar the reputation of all those who serve our state, despite the fact that most do so with distinction.

It is painful to recall my situation and, on a personal level, I can sympathize with the pain the governor’s family must feel and can uniquely understand their concerns about what comes next.

But I find his reported behavior troubling. There’s a big difference between running a sloppy office and staging a personally-beneficial auction to make policy and personnel decisions. That’s what disturbs the public. It bothers me, too.

It would be a mistake, though, to conclude that Chicago or Illinois produced a disproportionate share of bad apples. They’re present in both parties whenever opportunity appears.

And while they tarnish the reputation of the entire political profession, there’s little evidence suggesting the small minority involved is any larger than it is among doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. In each field, honesty and integrity are the norms. In each, a small number stray, some seriously. Cynics who see corruption as pervasive in politics are wrong.

As Nancy Reagan might put it, the correct response is to simply say no and to stay away from situations that threaten to compromise personal integrity.

Nonetheless, the temptations keep coming and at least a small percentage of politicians give in to them. A smaller group apparently actively seeks them out. As a rule, they’re as crude and inept as they are subversive of the public interest, so most are quickly caught.

Minimizing the problem is a continuing challenge. We need to reassure the public that such behavior is viewed as unacceptably out of bounds by the majority of politicians, who are trying to create a better country despite the lack of any consensus about how precisely to achieve that goal.

Many of my political colleagues are very wary of purists who resist the inevitable need to compromise and settle for half a loaf—or even a few slices—of what they construe as progress. But there’s a big difference forging a political compromise, which is part of the job, and running an auction where the highest bidder wins, which is wrong. Most politicians know the difference.

The few who don’t stain the reputations of the majority who know better.

Our focus on today’s scandal should not distract us from the positive role Illinois has had. in presidential contests, including this year’s. Abraham Lincoln’s record remains exemplary. I’ve always also thought of Ronald Reagan, who I both collaborated with and confronted—depending on the issue—as a son of Illinois. After all, he was born and educated here and California never robbed him of some basic Midwestern values—like straight talk and a willingness to split the difference with the other side and acknowledge that a modest victory was preferable to a principled, but uncompromising stand that precluded any progress.

For Illinois politicians, this is both the best of the times and the worse of times. For Americans, the election of a new president with the potential to change things for the better should—and soon will, I hope, overshadow the tainted debate about his senate successor.

Dan Rostenkowski served as U.S. Congressman from Illinois from 1959 to 1995.