When I learned the New York Times was making a big splash with its story that the governor of New York was a customer of an Internet prostitution group, I couldn’t help but remember a conversation I had years ago with a fellow reporter-type about news judgment and the difference between Chicago and New York City.
My counterpart said the choice of which stories to cover is rarely the old cliché of “man bites dog” (what is unusual), but rather is which stories feed our stereotype about what a place or person is like (what is all too predictable).
THAT PARTICULAR DAY, the two lead stories on the national newscasts came from New York and Chicago. The New York story was the ongoing criminal investigation into a woman who was mugged and raped while jogging in Central Park, while the Chicago story involved the modern-day “G-men” getting indictments against five political people (including one sitting Chicago alderman) who were tied to organized crime.
In New York, nice girls get jumped in Central Park, while in Chicago, The Outfit runs things and the aldermen are all crooks. They reinforced our stereotypes of the cities.
On Monday, I saw similar elements at work in what are now the big stories coming out of New York and Chicago. Both involve politics and consist of governors tainted by forces bigger than themselves to the point where some people think their futures are uncertain.
But that’s where the similarity ends. The essential character of Chicago and New York take over, providing the stories with their differences.
NEW YORK GOT to see the state’s first lady, Silda Spitzer, look totally miffed about having to stand at her husband’s side while he publicly apologized for his behavior. Federal prosecutors say they have the governor’s voice on a recording arranging to meet a call girl (just to “talk politics,” I’m sure) at a Washington hotel.
Here in Chicago, the federal court trial of Antoin “Tony” Rezko enters its second week, and we are expected to learn just how government officials pressure each other to do things that are meant to benefit their friends – rather than the general public
On Monday alone, we got to hear testimony from an official in charge of appointing people to low- and mid-level government posts, saying how she was pressured to put a wealthy attorney on the state pension board because he had been a significant contributor to Blagojevich’s gubernatorial campaign.
Prosecutors say Rezko himself may also have received some money from the attorney in exchange for the government appointment – which is where legal officials say the line was crossed from legitimate lobbying efforts to criminal activity.
SO IN NEW York, political people buy a girl, while in Chicago, they buy a job that can give them more influence which could make them more wealthy – and perhaps use that extra money to go out and buy a girl or two. Who knows?
The point is that a Chicago political scandal gets into the nitty-gritty of government operations and of a batch of people who want power, but not the public perception of it. Tony Rezko would have been more than content if he could have gone through life as an unknown to the public, but knowing in his own mind that he could get the politicos to jump whenever he gave the order.
In New York, the political scandal is about sex and public influence.
It is about flash.
IT IS ABOUT the outside activities of the politicos and whether they are morally inappropriate for people of power. It fits the mentality of the New Yorker who wants to think the world ends at Manhattan, and where everything is bigger and flashier there than anywhere else on Earth.
Let’s be honest. If not for Eliot Spitzer’s title (and former positions of prosecutorial authority with the U.S. attorney’s office), this story would be nothing more than cheap titillation.
It would be an excuse for television stations to take pictures of a computer screen with the Emperors Club VIP web-site, showing pictures of the girls and salaciously letting people know those girls’ sexual favors could be bought for between $1,000 and $5,500 per hour. It also would be something that even the New York Post would get bored with after one day’s worth of editions.
Now I’m not saying that Chicago politicos don’t mess around. But in the Chicago political culture, the out-of-wedlock sexual activity is more likely to involve an elected official and some sort of legislative aide or staffer, or even the good ol’-fashioned cliché of a secretary. (Remember former Gov. George Ryan’s chief of staff and his secretary, for whom he went to prison as part of a deal to keep her from doing any hard time?)
PERHAPS OUR POLITICOS are too cheap to “buy” it.
But the Chicago political scandal involves the actual government activity itself.
It’s as though our political observers view the scandal story as little more than a true-life civics lesson – one that people should learn so as to comprehend just why so many apparently silly decisions are made by politicos.
The Rezko trial will give us (if it lives up to its pre-trial hype) many details about just how political people are persuaded to support certain acts, and reject others.
WE’RE GOING TO learn of how Rezko used his connections to political people to get favors for his friends (particularly those who wrote out large campaign contribution checks) that politicos would never have considered doing – had they been thinking for themselves.
Supposedly, we’re going to learn that Blagojevich himself did nothing to stop Rezko, even though he allegedly was fully aware of how involved Rezko was in getting favors for his financial friends. Those people who didn’t like Blagojevich much to begin with want to believe this will be the start of a process that ends with the governor’s conviction and imprisonment.
Personally, I’m skeptical. Political corruption cases have a knack of producing expectations that are never met, and it could very well turn out that our governor is just a clueless sort – not a criminal mastermind.
I’M TAKING THE same attitude with the prospects of testimony that will show presidential hopeful Barack Obama to be a very close Rezko friend. Obama admits to ties to the man who wanted to be friends with everybody in politics. Testimony on Monday indicated that Obama was one of eight people whom Rezko once consulted about certain government appointments.
There’s nothing wrong with asking a sitting U.S. senator for political advice, although it puts Obama in a position where he looks stupid and appears to owe Tony, theoretically, a favor or two.
Stupidity. That’s the key word when it comes to many political corruption cases – both the Chicago and New York type.
A FORMER FEDERAL prosecutor should realize that cavorting with prostitutes is illegal. Corruption cases are filled with instances where political people were thinking with their heads in the clouds.
But one has to be careful not to judge their stupid thoughts for criminal activity in and of itself. Motive is everything, and it is often hard to prove.
It’s not like stupidity in and of itself is a federal offense. If it were, just think of all the people who would be locked away in prison; probably even yourself, at some point in your life.
EDITOR’S NOTES: Here’s the New York Times account (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/10/nyregion/10cnd-spitzer.html?hp) that caused cable television news operations to wet their pants with glee all afternoon on Monday.
He’s sorry. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/video/?slug=chi-080310spitzer-wn) He’s really, really sorry.
The Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-rezko-court-story,0,7957753.story) is attempting to use the timelessness of the Internet to provide running coverage of the trial of Tony Rezko. This link could be worth saving and checking repeatedly.
Tony Rezko, as perceived by political observers from outside the world (http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/news/stories.nsf/illinoisnews/story/5F5F2A18194B31328625740600191294?OpenDocument) of Chicago politics.