Wednesday, January 7, 2009


January 8, 2009

New Year's Resolution #1: Learn to spell the name of the Illinois governor. Oh, why bother? Just add it to the spell-checker: Blagojevich. Double-proof. Click-click. Resolution accomplished.

New Year's Resolution #2: Learn to pronounce the name of the Illinois governor. That's Blog-o-YEV-itch, right? Or is it Blag- OH-jevitch? To hell with it; just call him Blago. Half a resolution accomplished is better than none.

New Year's Resolution #3: Change every aspect of my life. I'll get back to you on that one.

Gosh. After the election, political junkies were all in cold-turkey withdrawal, wondering how to survive the 75 days before the inauguration, or at least the 61 days before the new Congress convened. But it wasn't hard to fill up the time after all.

First there were the cabinet and agency appointments, most of them made in short order. Despite the mantra of change and the promise of youthful vigor, Obama's picks were mostly Bill Clinton's advisers from the '90's, sadder but wiser, we hope. The issue in the campaign was experience, and the argument for Obama was that what he lacked in that category, he made up for in judgment; the experience would be supplied from those he would choose to surround him. He's done that for sure — the question is whether the experience of the past decade can meet the problems of this one, and the next.

Just when all that was settling down and the pundits started fishing for words, behold! a gracious gift from the God of Gab: the Blago bombshell. I'm not sure how much substance there is to prosecutor Fitzgerald's case, at least in terms of pay-and-play for Obama's vacant Senate seat: Does expletive-laden, megalomaniacal wiretapped blabbing constitute a crime if there was no deal? But the legalities hardly mattered to most of the viewing public. Crime or no crime, the hair-guy was immensely entertaining — reality beating reality-show yet again. It was also exciting to watch Illinois state politics at work — not like our states' politics, not at all! — and to see those once- salivating Senate hopefuls three times denying that they know the man.

Then steps up one brave or foolish soul, former state attorney general Roland Burris, accepting Blago's offer because, as he robotically repeated to the media, the governor (arrested or no) has the authority, the proposal for a special election failed in the legislature, impeachment is a long and tedious process, Illinois needs a senator, and the Senate needs an African-American. Congressional Democrats, self-righteous, say they'll refuse to seat him, not on the basis of his own merits but only because of who appointed him. Wouldn't it be better to vet the nominee rather than the nominator, and if he is as free of taint as any politician from Illinois can be, welcome him? Wouldn't it be better to have an additional Democratic vote than an empty chair?

While all this drama was occurring, playing like background music was the Senate-seat seesaw in Minnesota, that curious, conflicted state. I haven't tuned in to The Prairie Home Companion lately; did Garrison Keillor analyze the re-count from Lake Wobegon? The now anachronistically-named Democratic-Farmer- Labor Party, which once dominated the state with figures like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, fared poorly among farmers, alienated in recent years by the party's intransigence on issues like abortion. In largely rural Stearns County, which my German relatives have farmed since the mid-1800's and which inspired Keillor's mythical town, Republican incumbent Ron Coleman beat DFL comedian Al Franken by 13 percentage points; in Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis, Franken topped Coleman by 14 points. Adding to the interest, Dean Barkley of the Independence Party, which produced wrestler-governor Jesse Ventura a decade ago, weighed in as a significant spoiler with 19 percent of the vote in Stearns, 13 percent in Hennepin, and 15 percent statewide, once more confirming the state's historical embrace of alternative politics.

What brought the race down to haggling over individual ballots was a seeming clash of cultures between old-time Minnesotans and more recent arrivals. It's two different worlds, equally divided — to the tune of a couple dozen votes.

And then there's Caroline Kennedy. Given all of the above and then some, why would JFK's daughter, who has so long guarded her privacy as her mother did, want an appointment to Hillary's presumptively vacant Senate seat from New York? Of anyone, anywhere, she certainly possesses the noblest ideal of public service, with her dad and her uncles Bobby and Teddy as exemplars. She also certainly understands the brutal, money- driven nature of politics and the media-driven eventuality that every secret of her life will be exposed, and if she has no secrets, they'll make some up.

Plus, it's not an objectively good fit. Why should she, a long-time Manhattanite, want to master the economics of Buffalo or Rochester, or suffer the bare-knuckled ways of Albany? Why not leave the Senate to a veteran New York politician like Andrew Cuomo, who knows the state thoroughly from west to east? It is true that Hillary learned her adopted state and learned it well, but Caroline is not Hillary. She is her parents' icon, occupying a unique place in the American story. It is understandable that she seek a more conspicuous role in public life. But there are so many other effective ways to do this: an ambassadorship or consultancy, for example. Caroline, be true to yourself! Of course, be political, it's in your nature — just don't be a politician.

It's amazing how protective of her I feel. It's the weight of memory.

The entre-act is coming to a close at last. The new Congress is in session, and (sweet relief!) the new administration is just days away. Is anybody in Washington trying Resolution #3?

I'll get back to you on that one.

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