It's the kind of sordid corruption tale you'd expect to be delivered in shadowy black-and-white and a Mickey Spillane voice-over: Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, responsible for filling President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat, tried to trade the post for financial favors. More shocking, though, was Blago's frank, cavalier talk about it in a conversation tape-recorded by the FBI. The seat, he said, is "a f–––ing valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing." Politicians being dirty in broad daylight, rather than under cover of darkness, is a proud U.S. tradition. The giants of the craft—sorry, graft:
James Michael Curley, Four-term Boston mayor; Massachusetts governor, 1935–37: He impersonated someone on a civil-service exam while holding public office, and then, after he was busted for the crime, ran for another office from jail. (He won.) Later, as governor during the Depression, he flagrantly used state money for his own devices, once even taking state policemen with him on a boondoggle to Florida to be his golf caddies. He was also suspected of using his clout to have the owner of a coveted license plate ("5") arrested so he could claim it. Ever greedy, Curley often doubled up on political gigs, serving as both U.S. congressman and city councilman in 1911 and both congressman and mayor in 1914 and 1945.
Edwin Edwards, four-term Louisiana governor: Known for his flamboyance, Edwards showed up at court during his 1985 trial for mail fraud and bribery at the reins of a horse and buggy—a metaphor, he said, for "the pace of the trial." After his conviction on subsequent charges of fraud and racketeering in 2000 (for which he is still in prison serving a 10-year sentence), the "Cajun Prince" maintained cosmic innocence: "I did not do anything wrong as a governor. Even if you accept the verdict as it is, it doesn't indicate that."
Spiro Agnew, vice president, 1969–73: In a crowded era for corruption, Nixon's politically doomed veep stands out from the Watergate crowd for his sheer audacity. He was convicted of soliciting $147,500 in bribes, a large chunk of which came in cash-filled envelopes that he accepted right there in his office across from the White House. In conversations with his lawyer, Agnew remained indignant, saying politicians had been accepting payoffs "for a thousand years."
George Washington Plunkitt, Tammany Hall 'ward boss,' 1880–1905: Plunkitt showed no remorse for his methods of profiting from his political position, which he called "honest graft." In a series of interviews, he described—with more pride than shame—how he exploited his knowledge of city-improvement projects to buy up property that would soon skyrocket in value. As he put it: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
William Hale Thompson, Chicago mayor, 1915–31: All corrupt roads lead back to Illinois. During "Big Bill" Thompson's Prohibition-era Chicago, crime rates soared and anything worth buying—contracting deals, political positions—was up for sale. But at least Big Bill did it with style. While running for his third term as mayor, he staged a debate against his "opponents"—or rather, live rats that he addressed using his opponents' names. He also tried to have the city's school superintendent removed for being "pro-British," and threatened to "punch King George in the snoot." (Why so annoyed with our ally? Did he need a reason?) After Thompson died, $1.5 million in cash was found in his safe-deposit box, along with another $500,000 in stocks and securities. The money was thought to be from Al Capone, but the FBI could never prove it.