Wednesday, December 31, 2008

GOV TO LEGE & USA: Drop Dead!

Picking a United States senator from the trash bin of political retirees might not seem like an aggressive act.

Yet for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, his selection Tuesday of Roland Burris as Illinois’ junior member of the U.S. Senate was a statement directed at the Illinois General Assembly, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago, and any other smart aleck who has devoted his time in recent weeks to taking potshots at Milorod and his wife.

BLAGOJEVICH HAS “TALKED tough” about standing up for a political and legal fight and continuing to try to do “the people’s business.” Proceeding with selecting a replacement for Barack Obama as though the past month has not happened is about nothing more than telling people to shove off.

It’s about responding to the General Assembly, where Illinois House members are preparing the political grounds upon which Blagojevich would be removed from office prior to the scheduled end of his term in January 2011.

And it’s about telling U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (who in federal documents is usually referred to merely as “the USA”) that his attempt to circumvent Blagojevich’s authority to pick a replacement senator was a lame gesture.

On the one hand, it would appear that Blagojevich has a touch of Texian in him.

THE TEXIANS WERE the original white settlers in the 1830s to what was then the Mexican state of Texas – of which about 200 or so got bottled up in a one-time Catholic mission in what is now San Antonio (remember the Alamo?).

Those men wound up getting slaughtered by the Mexican army, which had them vastly outnumbered and was prepared to show them no quarter.

Just like how the General Assembly these days is hellbent on saying that it impeached Blagojevich and booted him from office – even though the real evidence of criminal activity on the governor’s part will not be made available to them, so they’re proceeding with charges based on things such as Blagojevich’s lame (and failed) attempt to purchase influenza vaccinations from foreign sources to make up for the fact that the usual sources for such vaccinations were not able to provide anything for Illinois.

Blagojevich’s attorney, Ed Gensen of Chicago, is repeatedly saying that the charges being considered against the governor for impeachment are not really criminal, and that the Legislature is showing signs of not respecting the due process rights that would be afforded Blagojevich in a legitimate criminal hearing.

THOSE ARE MERE token defenses on Gensen’s part, and I’m sure even he realizes that impeachment is a political maneuver. The Legislature can remove the governor from office for whatever grounds it deems worthy, and only has to provide enough due process so as to eliminate the perception that what is taking place is legitimate removal – and NOT a coup d’etat.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald was clear enough when his office announced the criminal complaint against the governor – they wanted to stop him from being able to make a replacement pick for the U.S. Senate. Their concerns about the way in which Blagojevich allegedly was handling the situation is what provoked the Democratic leadership of the U.S. Senate to ask the governor not to try to do anything with regards to replacing Obama.

So in the midst of this bombardment on Blagojevich by the Legislature and the USA, the governor responded by giving us a new U.S. senator, and just in time for the new senator to take office along with all the other Senate newcomers when the newly-elected legislative body begins its work in Washington on Tuesday.

It’s a “Drop dead!” to the Legislature for playing such hardball with impeachment rhetoric. Another “Drop dead!” to USA Fitzgerald for thinking he could intervene with a governor’s legitimate authority to fill political vacancies. A “Drop dead!” to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for not showing support for a fellow Democratic Party official.

AND A FINAL “Drop dead!” is directed to every single political observer whose political partisanship has caused him (or her) to spend the past six years taking pot shots at Blagojevich, and now may have them drooling with glee at the thought of being able to attach the “I” word to the Blagojevich legacy.

This clearly was a political selection made from spite. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that even Blagojevich himself realizes that his pick will never actually assume the ranks of the U.S. Senate.

But should it be the Washington bigwigs who prevent Roland Burris from ending his political career on Capitol Hill (instead if with a string of electoral failures) or should it be Illinois Legislature types who craft some sort of maneuver to prevent Burris from becoming a senator, then Blagojevich will claim it is those people (and NOT him) who are harming Illinois’ political interests.

It could also be a maneuver meant to place blame on others should the eventual U.S. senator from Illinois NOT be an African-American. Blagojevich will claim he tried to give the Senate a lone African-American member, and that it is all the political hacks who are intervening.

THIS MANEUVER MIGHT sound too cold and calculating to be realistic. But then again, it is just as callous an act as those being conducted by legislative types who are trying to organize the removal of a duly-elected official from public office.

The ironic part of all this is that Burris is far from the worst choice that could have been made for a U.S. senator from Illinois, particularly if Burris has enough sense to view himself as a caretaker of what is left of Obama’s Senate term and not start thinking of building a lengthy Washington legacy for himself.

At age 71 and with electoral defeats for Chicago mayor and Illinois governor behind him (it has been 14 years since Burris finished his string on state government service that included multiple terms as state comptroller and a term as state attorney general), I would hope Burris has common sense – despite the fact that his political past has shown an ability to let his ego run amok.

But we are talking the Centralia native turned Chicagoan who has shown an ability to reach out to all Illinoisans and who was the first black man to win a statewide political post. He even had his moment of Hollywood “glory” when he made a cameo appearance in the 1993 film “The Fugitive,” starring Harrison Ford.

SENDING A POLITICAL pro like Burris to Washington for two years while all the political partisans of both Democrat and Republican persuasion gear up for a nasty electoral fight in the 2010 elections would not be the worst fate that could befall Illinois.

In fact, it might be one bit of evidence that Blagojevich is capable of making a logical government decision – even if his motivation was not so much the “public good” as a desire to tell his enemies to “Drop dead!”

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Springfield-based political people should follow the lead of “Mr. Burns”

Will the entrenched (and sometimes juvenile) culture of the Statehouse Scene be able to accept that one of their "freshmen" members has a good idea?

To fans of the long-running animated television series “The Simpsons,” the idea that Mr. Burns is a force for good would be an absurd idea. But as it turns out, the Illinois version of Springfield has a “Mr. Burns” who may have a truly worthwhile idea with regards to the picking of a successor to Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.

Of course, we’re talking about Will Burns, not C. Montgomery. Burns is a newcomer to the Illinois House of Representatives (he takes his seat as a freshman legislator come next month) who says he wants to make one of his first actions in the General Assembly to sponsor a bill changing the way that Illinois picks replacements for the state’s senate seat.

UNDER HIS PROPOSAL, Burns would have the Illinois governor continue to make his selection for who he thinks should represent Illinois in the Senate.

But instead of having the authority to make the pick all by himself, the governor’s selection would then have to be submitted to both the Illinois House and the state Senate for confirmation.

In short, every single one of the 177 members of the General Assembly would have a say, and would get to represent the interests of their constituents (some of whom are clamoring for partisan reasons that Illinois should conduct a special election in order to pick a replacement for Obama – who resigned the post more than a month ago.

Variations on this idea had been suggested by political observers, although Burns is the first person of any authority to publicly take the idea seriously.

I LIKE THE idea because it would allow Illinois to move forward with the selection of an Obama replacement, regardless of what happens to Gov. Rod Blagojevich or how long his legal travails stretch out.

Should it turn out that Blagojevich has a say, he would have to make concessions to come up with a candidate who would truly be acceptable to a majority of the General Assembly. Because in the political climate that exists now, I have no doubt that the Illinois Legislature would veto any proposed senator whose candidacy would do nothing more than serve Blagojevich’s personal interests.

So much for the idea that Blagojevich would pick retiring Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, for a seat in the U.S. Senate so as to create the concept of a political ally amidst a sea of political people across Illinois who can’t stand the man.

I will always be convinced that Jones would have been the recipient of Blagojevich’s “Christmas present” to finish the remaining two years of Obama’s term in the Senate.

TREATING THE ISSUE of an Obama replacement similar to how the federal government allows a president to pick Supreme Court justices who still need the confirmation of the U.S. Senate is good. In fact, it might be worthwhile to make the change permanent – instead of just a one-time measure for an Obama replacement, which is the way Burns says he would structure his bill.

If it turns out that Illinois gets stuck with a political hack for the next two years, all of the Statehouse crew would have to share in the blame. Blagojevich would not be in the position of using the Senate appointment process for his own benefit – which is what caused the U.S. attorney’s office to rush their criminal case and seek a criminal complaint against him earlier this month.

For what it is worth, Burns is not just another rookie in the General Assembly.

Burns is the new state representative from Obama’s home Hyde Park neighborhood, and he also served as a campaign manager during one of Obama’s bids for the state Senate and also was chief of staff to Jones and the Illinois Senate as a whole.

THIS IS A newcomer who understands the political process in Springfield and also has a feel for the man whom any new Illinois senator would replace in Washington.

Despite that background, people should not get too hung up on Will Burns himself. Because if by chance the General Assembly does go so far as to adopt this idea for picking an Obama replacement, there’s no way Burns will be the bill’s sponsor.

The mindset surrounding the Statehouse Scene would never allow a new legislator to sponsor a bill of such magnitude. Freshmen legislators are the ones who get heckled and harassed during debate on their first bill, and have every single one of their colleagues vote against it – only to have that 0-117 vote turn suddenly into a vote of support at the last possible second.

If it sounds like the General Assembly reeks of a high school mentality at times, it does. The only thing that’s missing is a prom queen.

THE PROBLEM WITH that attitude is that some legislators will refuse to take the Burns proposal seriously, just because he’s a freshman.

Others will only go along if someone of higher stature were to sponsor the bill. In fact, it often happens that when a newcomer comes up with a worthwhile idea, someone else will copy his proposal onto their own bill, and the General Assembly will then consider dueling measures on the same idea.

Personally, I don’t care who gets credit. All I know is that Burns has latched onto a good idea. It would be nice if someone in the General Assembly were to follow up on the idea and guide it through the legislative process to become law – the sooner the better.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: A newcomer to the Illinois Legislature would like to come up with a method for the state (http://www.chicagopublicradio.org/Content.aspx?audioID=31125) to progress beyond the current political stalemate.

Is Will Burns truly a political intellectual, or (http://www.friendsofwillburns.com/) is he merely an opportunist who realizes that this measure will make him stand out amidst the other newcomers to the General Assembly?

A University of Chicago education apparently has not knocked all common sense out of (http://www.chicagomaroon.com/2008/10/24/uncommon-interview-with-will-burns) Burns’ mind.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Quinn should do his job, show some backbone and pick the new senator

Illinois’ lieutenant governor got his moment of glory on the Sunday news talk television shows, and gained attention with his comment that Rod Blagojevich would be removed from office before the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

That would be Feb. 12. It implies that the Illinois House of Representatives can come up with grounds for impeachment, and that the state Senate can ram a “trial” through on those charges so as to remove him from office – all within the time span of just over one month.

IT MAY BE true.

There are enough blowhards in the Illinois General Assembly who are determined to take an action that they can spin in a way as to claim that they single-handedly punished Illinois’ incumbent governor. Any “trial” by the Illinois Senate will be the textbook example of the concept that impeachment is a political maneuver – not a legal one.

But I think the reports that emphasized the “Feb. 12” date and Lincoln’s birthday miss the point. For Quinn now is saying that should he rise to the post of governor following the impeachment and conviction of Blagojevich, he is prepared to push for the idea of a special election for Illinois to pick a replacement for Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.

As anyone who has been reading my commentary on this matter is aware, I am primarily concerned about the filling of that Senate seat from Illinois. The idea that our Legislature ought to impose punishment on Blagojevich is a secondary issue to me, because the real punishment will be whatever happens to him in the U.S. District Court system on whatever criminal charges the U.S. attorney’s office for Chicago decides to hit him with.

BY SAYING HE is not going to move forward quickly with filling a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, Quinn is ensuring that Illinois’ representation on Capitol Hill will be short-staffed for a good part of 2009.

That idea bothers me almost as much as anything Blagojevich is alleged to have done.

Of course, this whole “special election” issue is being stirred up by people who resent the way replacements are picked for the Senate. One of the perks of being a governor of a state (aside from usually getting some sort of ornate mansion to work and live in and the power to commute death sentences and other criminal convictions if one is so inclined) is the ability to fill Senate vacancies.

That was why Blagojevich used to openly boast (in such a gauche manner) that he was going to give a “Christmas present” to some public official by making him a U.S. senator for the remaining two years of Obama’s term (which runs through January 2011).

SINCE FEDERAL PROSECUTORS in Chicago made it public knowledge that they filed a criminal complaint against Blagojevich (in part because they objected to the manner in which he was attempting to fill that Senate vacancy), the governor has done nothing toward filling the post.

He realizes that any attempt by him to use his legal authority to fill the post would be perceived as an arrogant act, and that the person who got the appointment would be tainted. In fact, one could argue that if he tried to fill the vacancy, THAT would constitute a ground for impeachment in that he was acting recklessly with regard to Illinois’ representation in Congress.

But it also means that we, the people of Illinois, are stuck in a lull. Blagojevich can not realistically fill the vacancy, but state law does not permit anyone else to take such action.

Now if removing Blagojevich from office were to ensure that a replacement official would promptly name Obama’s successor, I would be content.

INSTEAD, WE’RE GETTING hints that we’re going to have to wait for months (it wouldn’t shock me to learn that it would stretch well into autumn) before we find out who will be Illinois’ junior U.S. senator.

After all, we’d have to have primary elections for all the major parties (Democrat, Republican and Green) in Illinois, then would have to conduct a general election between the primary nominees. No matter how much one tries to rush the process, it takes time.

What most appalls me about this is the fact that Quinn was once able to speak rationally about this issue. On the day of Blagojevich’s criminal complaint, Quinn talked of having Blagojevich “step aside” on the senate replacement issue so that someone else could fill the vacancy without suffering from the Taint of Milorod.

But since then, Quinn has been all over the place on the issue. Now, he appears to be saying that, should he become governor, he is unwilling to fulfill his duties.

LET’S BE HONEST. The people who are most pushing this “special election” rhetoric are the ones aligned with the Illinois Republican Party, which has become so weak they probably can’t win a statewide election under any other circumstances.

But I have to wonder if the party’s chaotic split between social conservatives and moderates (with many of the latter being chased out of the Illinois GOP) means that they would put up a rural conservative candidate who would be so out of touch with the bulk of Illinois’ population (two-thirds of whom live in Chicago or its surrounding suburbs) that they would still wind up losing to whichever Democrat would want to replace Blagojevich.

It might be closer than an election held under more conventional circumstances would be, but it could still be a Democratic Party win. That’s how messed up the Republican Party is in this state.

And for those people who would enjoy seeing such an election, keep in mind that we’re going to get it – in the year 2010. All of this partisan nonsense is still going to be alive that year, particularly since there’s a good chance that Blagojevich himself will go on trial that year.

THE LEGAL SYSTEM’S snail pace could easily provide a Blagojevich verdict some time around the November 2010 date that is Election Day.

My point in saying this is to ask whether Illinois really needs to endure a special election (with its high costs that could run up to $50 million) both this year and next?

Quinn should make the appointment. Or if Blagojevich is going to be in his elective office for some time, our Legislature ought to focus its attention on figuring out how pick a credible replacement for two years.

Any other emphasis by our elected officials creates the potential situation where the Legislature looks pompous. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate in tragedy if Illinois history were to remember this era we’re enduring now as the moment in time when the General Assembly let its personal animosity for Blagojevich get in the way of doing “the people’s business.”

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EDITOR’S NOTES: Patrick Quinn (the Illinois politico, not any of the other public officials who share his name) got his moment of national glory on the Sunday morning (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=4688537n) public affairs program “Face the Nation.”

Will Rod Blagojevich really be gone by Feb. 12, 2009? Invoking the memory of Abraham Lincoln (http://thehill.com/leading-the-news/quinn-predicts-blagojevich-will-be-removed-soon-2008-12-28.html) in connection with Blagojevich has gained national attention for both Quinn and U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Elgin publishing schedule could become the norm for Chicago newspapers

I’m not a regular reader of the Courier News newspaper of Elgin. But I will be paying attention to the publication in the Kane County suburbs of Chicago because it is planning on a couple of changes that I have long thought were inevitable for newspapers.

The newspaper is giving up on the idea of publishing a distinct edition for Saturday. Some of the features that now appear in the Saturday paper will turn up a day earlier on Friday, while more attention will be put into making the Sunday paper (the one that pretends to be fat and substantial in content) more worthwhile.

THE NEWSPAPER’S PUBLISHERS also plan to turn their broadsheet format newspaper into a tabloid (think of Tribune-sized pages being converted into Sun-Times size).

Neither of these changes bothers me. In fact, I can’t help but think that the newspaper industry has been moving in this direction for quite awhile. So making these changes is just a matter of accepting modern reality.

The simple fact is that most Saturday newspapers are pointless. Many papers publish scrawny editions on that day whose sole purpose is to create the illusion that the publication comes out every single day.

But the fact is that readership of Saturday editions of newspapers has always been significantly lower than any other day, particularly compared to the Friday and Sunday editions that precede and follow it.

THE FACT IS that while I personally wait until Sunday before reading a Sunday newspaper, I am aware of the fact that many people prefer to buy those “early edition” copies that hit the newsstands by Saturday afternoon (I once bought a “Sunday” paper in downtown Chicago at 7 a.m. Saturday), then spend the whole weekend going through all those feature-y sections.

If one can accept the idea that the hard news in the front pages and in the sports section is NOT going to be the hot-breaking news from Saturday, but is instead some space-filling features that can be removed and replaced with real news for the Sunday “late final edition,” then this concept makes sense.

I could learn to accept this goal, if eliminating a Saturday paper meant more emphasis and more interesting publications on Friday and Sunday.

Besides, the part of me that is a political reporter knows one other reality – many government officials make a point of releasing statements on potentially negative (from their perspective) news late Friday afternoon.

THEY VIEW SUCH activity as a way of claiming they have nothing to hide, while also ensuring that the resulting stories will turn up in the sparsely read Saturday editions of newspapers.

If doing away with those Saturday editions meant that such stories would turn up in better-read Sunday papers, then that would be a plus for the general public. If such a practice also caused political people to realize that their cheap, pathetic attempts to manipulate news coverage were destined to fail, that would also be a plus for the general public.

Then, there’s the other change – the one that’s most likely to cause outrage among long-standing readers of the Courier News. Tabloid is not just a trashy type of reporting, it’s really a printed page format.

It is the one that the Sun-Times has used for more than six decades (the old Chicago Sun, and later, the Sun & Times, were broadsheets), and can allow for pages that give greater emphasis to the stories placed on them – because the pages are smaller and there are fewer elements per page.

A QUALITY TABLOID newspaper can almost be like a daily news magazine, and can be designed in ways that make for more interesting reading.

Now for those people who are about to argue with me that newspapers are meant to be broadsheet, with those big bulky pages that fold in half, I’d argue that the changes of recent years have already undercut the broadsheet format.

With the way that newspaper pages have become more and more narrow, the typical broadsheet newspaper is barely wider than a tabloid page. It’s not like the old days when tabloid pages were 15 or so inches wide – a page width that even the Wall Street Journal has abandoned.

Seriously, I took my ruler to the Friday editions of the Tribune and Sun-Times, and found that the latter paper’s pages of 11 ½ inches wide were close to the Tribune, at 12 inches.

AND WHEN ONE looks at the graphic elements that the Tribune is trying to do with its latest re-design, they usually consist of large pictures and bold type whose potential visual strength is lost by having to fill a full broadsheet page of 22 inches high (compared to 12 ½ inches for the Sun-Times).

In fact, what hurt the Tribune’s front page presentation from Nov. 5 (Barack Obama’s Election Day victory) was that most of the large photograph and all of the headline type turned up in the bottom half of the front page. Which means all those news boxes had papers with the bulk of the goods out of view of the potential buyer.

My honest attitude toward the Tribune’s attempt at a new format is that they’re trying to do tabloid style graphics (which can be attractive if done stylishly and with a touch of class) on pages far too large.

In fact, there are times if I wonder if the Tribune’s future is to become a collection of loosely affiliated themed publications along the lines of “RedEye” or “Hoy” – both of which are tabloid in format and in spirit.

SO I VIEW the Courier News management (which ultimately is the Sun-Times company management) as having a grasp on reality in accepting that the tabloid format makes sense.

It would be better than what I once saw during a trip to Indianapolis. On the way back home, we stopped for gasoline and something to eat in West Lafayette, Ind. Out of habit, I stopped at a local news box and picked up the local newspaper – the Journal & Courier – to go along with the Indianapolis Star I picked up earlier.

That newspaper was presented as a broadsheet with a fold in the middle. But its pages were the same width as the Chicago Sun-Times, and its page height was only about three inches more than the Sun-Times, or about seven inches less than a Tribune.

The Indiana paper was a tabloid pretending to be a broadsheet, which made the whole presentation (in my mind) look convoluted.

CONSIDERING THAT THE Courier News is a part of the whole Sun-Times News Group (which includes daily papers in outer cities such as Joliet, Waukegan, Tinley Park and Merrillville, Ind., to name a few), I would not be surprised if all that company’s newspapers wound up taking on such format changes. Elgin could very well become the laboratory for what Chicago-area newspapers will look like in coming years.

When one takes into account the fact that newspapers in other cities are talking about dropping daily publication on weekdays (telling their readers that those will be the days they will have to use the newspaper’s website if they want updated information), I view the whole Elgin experiment as far less radical than some people might try to portray it as.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: The end of January will be the beginning of a new format for one (http://www.businesswire.com/portal/site/google/?ndmViewId=news_view&newsId=20081226005015&newsLang=en) of the daily newspapers that publishes on the fringe of the Chicago area.

The Courier News of Elgin is far from the only “daily” newspaper to decide “daily” isn’t (http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003924707) worth the extra effort come the publisher's Pay Day.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A DAY IN THE LIFE (as seen from Chicago): To the Right, Oh Be Quiet!

A part of me would like to think that the “Festivus Pole” erected at the Statehouse in Springpatch is just a stupid idea concocted by someone who watches too much television.

After all, the whole gag of the “Seinfeld” episode in which Frank Costanza tells us of his Festivus holiday was that it reinforced the notion that he was a blowhard who got worked up over stupid things. The idea that anybody took seriously such a parody of a holiday is a sad sign.

BUT I CAN’T just dismiss this stunt because of the way in which at least one conservative activist is taking it so seriously, while also reinforcing the concept that what some religious types are really interested in is not promoting their own beliefs for public debate, but ramming them down the throats of everybody else.

For those of you who are wondering what I’m talking about, it is the “Festivus Pole” erected at the Statehouse, at the request of a Springfield teenager who thought it ridiculous that a nativity scene, a giant menorah and a display promoting atheism all were set up inside the rotunda of the state capitol for this holiday season.

So he went ahead and got a pole, then got permission from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office (which manages the capitol grounds) to erect it.

His stunt got national attention when it became known that the group of religious activists who fought for permission to set up their nativity scene were offended, saying it was disrespectful to their own project, and also promoted a holiday that “is nothing.”

THOSE WERE THE words as reported by the Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspapers of Daniel Zanoza, an activist who used to live in the Chicago area, but has since moved to rural Illinois because he feels his conservative beliefs on many social issues fit in more comfortably there.

He’s probably right, and it wouldn’t shock me to learn many of the locals like the idea of a nativity scene erected in the capitol. But I still have a problem with many of these public displays of religious beliefs, just because I think many of them are tacky looking and wind up being disrespectful to the religious beliefs that are supposed to be acknowledged.

I’m not just talking about the Statehouse. Who really thinks the giant menorah outside of Daley Center serves a purpose, other than to provide the impression of religious “balance’ to the Christmas tree, while really doing nothing more than cluttering the Daley Plaza grounds?

What other news nuggets are worthy of public attention on this Day After Christmas/sixth night of Hanukkah/first Day of Kwanzaa?

GEORGE RYAN IS TOO HOT FOR GEORGE BUSH TO HANDLE: Anybody who thinks I’m exaggerating the unlikelihood that President George W. Bush will do nothing to help former Gov. George Ryan ought to look at the way the outgoing president handled the case of Isaac Toussie.

He was a real estate developer prosecuted by “the feds” for a real estate scam. Bush granted him a pardon on Tuesday, then rescinded it on Wednesday. Officially, presidential aides claim Bush was not given a proper understanding of what it was Toussie had done, thereby making any form of presidential forgiveness inappropriate.

Political cynics would say it is Bush trying to eliminate the taint his legacy would suffer by giving a pardon to a man whose father donated just over $28,000 to the Republican National Committee, thereby creating the perception that Toussie’s pardon was purchased.

If Bush wouldn’t take some political heat in this case, why should anyone think he would be willing to do much of anything to help Ryan get out of serving five more years at the federal facility in Terre Haute, Ind.? Ryan will likely have to wait until Independence Day 2013 before he can get out of prison.

GETTING AWAY FROM THE WEATHER: Many people are getting all worked up these days over the photographs emanating from Honolulu – the ones that show President-elect Barack Obama to be in good physical shape for a man two decades younger than himself, let alone his real age (48).

But what intrigues me is the idea that this country now has a president who can legitimately vacation in Hawaii. If any past chief executive had tried to do so, it would have been used as evidence of a trivial mentality.

But the Honolulu-born Obama can claim he’s merely visiting his sister, although being able to stake a claim to a portion of the beachfront as his own (and have the Secret Service enforce that claim) shows that this is no mere Hawaii vacation.

If anything, this trip shows that Obama has a certain amount of sense. I’d be more concerned if he had insisted on spending his Christmas holidays at the “homestead” in Hyde Park. As much as I enjoy the area in and around Chicago, I wish I could be some other place right now – somewhere where the temperatures aren’t being driven below 0 degrees by wind chill and where ice on the roads doesn’t cause my car to go slip, slidin’ away (with apologies to Paul Simon the singer) off the road and into a bank of snow.

SULTRY, AND NOW SAD: “Santa Baby” (the song, not the made-for-cable-TV film starring one-time Sout’ Sider Jenny McCarthy as Santa Claus' daughter) always had that sexy, sultry sound to it, making the idea of a fat guy in a bright red suit sound downright erotic.

But now, it’s going to take on a sad tone. For Eartha Kitt, the singer whose version of the song will always be THE version, died on Christmas Day. She was 81, and had been treated for colon cancer.

In fact, in my mind, the coincidence of her death date will cause the song to erase what many people want to believe was Kitt’s greatest entertainment accomplishment – being one of several women to play “the Catwoman” opposite Adam West in the 1960s campy (but still classic)version of “Batman.”

But what the woman named for a prime cotton harvest in the year of her berth (the Earth was fertile that year, her parents thought) really ought to be remembered for was rising from what could have been a life working the fields or in factories to instead being an actress in several films who could be in a position to upset then-first lady Lady Bird Johnson by saying the youth of America had a legitimate gripe in opposing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy X-Mas, Chicago-style

I’m giving the commentary a rest, primarily because I would hope that the majority of you have better things to do Thursday than sit at your computer reading things on the Internet.

So shut down that blasted machine and go do something enjoyable in the real world to celebrate Christmas, the fifth sundown of Hanukkah or the Day before Kwanzaa.

BUT BEFORE YOU go, here’s an animated moment from the past that many older generations will remember from television (remember “Ray Rayner and Friends?”) around the Christmas holiday season. Now if by chance you would have preferred to have seen "Suzy Snowflake" or "Frosty the Snowman," or are the snot-nosed type who thinks the crudity of the antique animation takes away from its charm, I have to say, “I don't want to hear it.”

But if you’re the type who can appreciate how State Street just isn’t the same as it used to be back in the day when Marshall Fields’ had uniquely decorated holiday windows (or can actually remember what "Santa's Village" was), feel free to post comments on whatever thoughts you may have of Chicago Christmases of years past.

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video

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Bush ‘pardon list’ doesn’t mean former gov Ryan passed over, not yet at least

On the same day that President George W. Bush signed the Wilbur Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act with much ritual, he also granted clemency to 20 people in a very low-key manner. Photograph provided by the White House.

I could almost sense the glee that likely popped into the hearts and minds of a segment of the Illinois population when they learned that President George W. Bush granted clemency to 20 people – and former Gov. George Ryan wasn’t one of them.

None of the people to whom Bush showed sympathy on Tuesday were involved in anything resembling high-profile crimes. Many were for federal drug-related crimes for which the people in question had already served their prison terms.

THE ONLY CASE that comes close to being a Chicago incident is the pardon granted to James Won Hee Kang of South Barrington, who was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Chicago back in 1985 to one year of probation and a $5,000 fine on a conviction of trafficking in counterfeit goods.

The purpose of seeking clemency at this point is so that their criminal convictions will not forevermore haunt them in what remains of their lives. It is common for such clemency to be granted in cases where the felon has shown serious signs of remorse and rehabilitation.

In short, hardly anyone is getting out of a punishment by Bush’s actions. Only one of the cases involved a commutation of a prison sentence, and that particular inmate still has to serve an extensive period of supervised release outside of a federal correctional center.

But the thing to keep in mind is that this is the annual tradition of a Christmas “gift” of sorts to people who might be deserving of a bit of clemency. It is NOT the other presidential “tradition” of granting some form of clemency to people whose high-profile cases are so controversial that the very thought of sympathy will offend those parts of the public who secretly wish for life prison terms for everybody who disagrees with them.

THAT IS THE group in which Ryan’s case will come up, and it likely will be the final (or next to final) act of the Bush administration occurring in the morning hours of Jan. 20 – Barack Obama becomes president at noon of that date.

Now I have written it before, and I will repeat myself. I don’t believe Bush will be inclined to show Ryan any sympathy. Not a pardon (which would offer legal “forgiveness” for his conviction), nor a commutation of sentence (which would leave his conviction in place, but get him out of serving the remaining 5 years of his prison term).

Ryan’s biggest critics are those conservative Republicans of Illinois who think that the former governor’s conduct in office gave too much to Democrats and left them in their weakened state (if only they’d look at their own behavior and stubborn ideological beliefs, they’d see the real reason the Illinois GOP is struggling).

There is also the fact that Ryan’s desires to reform the death penalty in Illinois reflected poorly upon Bush, who when he was Texas governor presided over a process that used to see two or three executions per month, compared to about one or two per year in Illinois during the 1990s – before Ryan put in place the moratorium that brought executions here to a halt.

THOSE PEOPLE WHO are bothered by this are also the people who still think favorably of George W. Bush’s presidency, and that last-minute round of clemency will go to the people who need a legal break so as to uphold Bush’s legacy.

Part of Bush’s legacy is also going to be the fact that he has been stingier about granting clemency than other presidents. Thus far, he has only given 191 pardons and nine commutations of sentences – or about half the total of other recent two-term presidents such as Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton.

This isn’t a man who is inclined to think it his place to go against a ruling by a jury and a sentence imposed by a judge. It would take exceptional instances to get him to do anything in a case.

That is why I think anyone connected with Abu Ghraib and the torture that took place there by U.S. military personnel will be the most likely to get a break from Bush, along with I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby – the former vice-presidential aide who previously got a commutation of sentence so he wouldn’t have to serve prison time, but still has a criminal conviction in place for his involvement in the covering up of who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

BY BUSH’S WAY of thinking, why should he “waste” clemency on George Ryan when those others are more deserving on ideological grounds?

So when the Chicago Sun-Times (or to be more accurate, http://www.suntimes.com/) publishes the headline “Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan not on Bush pardon and commutation list,” those of you who are out for the former governor’s scalp should not start high-fiving each other and declaring “Victory!”

That moment will come when the rest of the country is caught up in the ceremonial pomp and circumstance of the Obama inauguration. You will be the ones getting all worked up at the thought of a 74-year-old man having to spend a few more years in a minimum-security work camp.

Because by the time that a President Obama would be in a position to consider clemency for Ryan, he will be close enough to having served his whole prison term (tentative release date, July 4, 2013) that it will be a moot point.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: The Department of Justice identified 20 one-time or current federal felons (http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2008/December/08-crm-1148.html) who got a Day-Before-Christmas legal break from President George W. Bush.

Bush granted a pardon to a deceased man whose “crime” was helping to provide arms (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/23/AR2008122301601.html) to Jewish people just before the creation of a nation of Israel. Does this mean George Ryan has a chance at a pardon after he dies?

This is the Internet posting that likely got Ryan critics all worked up, at least until they realized (http://blogs.suntimes.com/sweet/2008/12/former_illinois_gov_george_rya.html) Bush still has just under a month to act on the Ryan family’s pleas for clemency.

Not everybody thinks a presidential pardon for Scooter Libby would be an injustice (http://www.usnews.com/blogs/barone/2008/12/23/george-bush-should-pardon-scooter-libby.html).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why Des Plaines?

Could it be that political people in Illinois are so determined to avoid the impression of corruption that it caused them to pick what was arguably the weakest of all the proposed sites for a new riverboat casino?

That was the thought that popped into my mind when I learned Monday that Des Plaines will be the site of the state’s 10th (and final) gambling boat complex.

THE ILLINOIS GAMING Board chose the municipality in northwest Cook County over nearby Rosemont and Waukegan, which in Lake County would have allowed for gambling on Lake Michigan proper.

That same board had previously struck down the desires of four south and southwest Cook County towns that wished to bolster their struggling economic pictures by taking in significant tax dollars from the casinos.

So state officials will allow Midwest Gaming LLC to go ahead and build a complex where people can gamble without having to leave the Chicago area, although there will be some Chicago-area residents who will think of Indian casinos in Wisconsin or Indiana-based riverboat casinos as more accessible to them.

Putting the final casino license to use in either Waukegan or Calumet City could have allowed Illinois to try to regain some of those gamblers.

NOW THERE ARE those people who have always argued that Rosemont, with its location adjacent to O’Hare International Airport, will forevermore remain the best site for a casino. One could literally run shuttles from the airport to the proposed casino site, thereby allowing people waiting for a connecting flight to enrich Illinois’ coffers with their gambling losses.

Also, all those northwest suburban hotels right around the airport would provide a base of people who might want to pass their time away in a casino environment.

But when the Illinois Gaming Board previously tried to award a casino license to a site in Rosemont, so much of a stink wafted up from the land of Roses and we got to hear all kinds of allegations that former mayor Don Stephens (now deceased) had ties to people involved in organized crime.

And the accounts I have been reading have noted that Waukegan Gaming, which would have operated a lakefront casino complex in its namesake city, had as one of its partners Bill Cellini.

HE’S THE ONE-time state government official back in the 1970s who went on to become a wealthy developer who has used his extensive ties to elected officials to exert significant influence within state government.

But the Springfield resident also currently is facing a criminal indictment of his own in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Even though he has sold his interest in any casino proposal for Waukegan to a Hinsdale contractor, there was still the impression that the Waukegan proposal would be a gambling boat with people of an unsavory nature involved.

Perhaps up until a few weeks ago, the gaming board would have been willing to look the other way.

Yet with the criminal complaint against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, combined with public attention to former Gov. George Ryan’s desire for a commutation of his prison sentence to time served, could be having the effect of making people super-sensitive to even the appearance of corruption.

SO, WE GET the future possibility of legal gambling in Des Plaines, a town of which I personally know only one thing – it is the site of the first McDonald’s hamburger franchise that Ray Kroc had anything to do with (the McDonald brothers ran their stands out in California, before selling out their name to milkshake machine salesman Kroc).

Now, it will have a casino that will threaten to take a little bit of business away from the Grand Victoria casino in Elgin – which is where area residents have had to go if they wanted to find a casino nearby.

As I understand, the site of a Des Plaines casino isn’t that far from the Rosemont proposal. So perhaps someone will still operate buses of some type between the town and all those hotels surrounding O’Hare airport. One might still be able to empty out all those out-of-town wallets before they fly away to destinations unknown.

But if the intention was truly to put O’Hare access above the concept of giving a boost to an economically impoverished town, then gaming board officials should have stuck to their prior decision and given the license to a Rosemont proposal.

AND IF THE idea is to give an economic jolt to a town in need, then Waukegan or any of those south suburban towns previously passed over would have been superior.

While gaming board officials said they were more concerned with future income than the amount of money the casino developers were willing to give the state up front, the fact remains that the Des Plaines proposal was far from the best.

Rosemont, Waukegan and Harvey all were willing to provide the state with more money up from than Des Plaines (even after the suburb boosted its offer from $100 million to $122.5 million).

All I know is that the casino and four restaurants, along with future development of a large-scale nightclub, had better be incredibly luxurious for its patrons. Or else the impression will always remain that Illinois’ decade-long political fight to find a replacement for the now-defunct casino in East Dubuque, Ill., ended with a second-rate proposal.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: An Illinois town whose pronunciation confuses people almost as much as Cairo, Vienna or Bourbonnais (http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2008/12/des-plaines-gets-last-casino-license.html) will get to join the ranks of nine other municipalities (http://www.chicagobusiness.com/cgi-bin/news.pl?id=32363) that have legal gambling casinos.

People living south of Chicago previously had the dreams dashed of having a gambling boat complex (http://chicagoargus.blogspot.com/2008/11/gambling-boat-talk-headed-northbound.html) built near their homes.

The “City of Destiny” (http://www.desplaines.org/) is now a city of gambling.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Blagojevich in the buff? Ugh!

A part of me is reluctant to write this commentary out of fear that I’m going to be giving more publicity to the Old Town neighborhood tavern that is displaying what it’s owner mockingly refers to as its “nude governor series.”

But I really don’t get the appeal of an amateur-quality painting depicting Rod Blagojevich in prison, about to be strip-searched by a guard.

IS THIS REALLY meant to draw the business of the segment of Illinois’ population that won’t be satisfied until they learn that Blagojevich is in a prison infirmary being treated for injuries sustained after being gang-raped in his cell?

Or are there really people other than the former Patricia Mell who have a desire to see Rod in the buff?

Either way, I don’t get it.

At stake is the Old Town Ale House, which received a dose of national attention earlier this year when its owners hung a painting that purported to be Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin in the nude, except for the assault rifle she was carrying.

ACTUALLY, IT WAS a painting of the tavern owner’s daughter, with Palin’s eyes, glasses and exaggerated beehive hairdo put on her body. But the painting’s existence drew many locals and tourists, many of whom insisted on using the cameras in their cellphones to shoot pictures of the nudie picture.

I don’t feel the need to show the Palin picture, but people can find many of those crude cellphone photographs on various sites around the Internet, if you are so inclined to search.

There’s no word thus far on who actually posed for the painting of Blagojevich.

Not that I particularly want to know, since about the only physical attribute of Illinois’ governor that has ever been notable has been his hair – which gives away completely the fact that Blagojevich is an “Elvis man.”

BUT TO ME, the reports about the Blagojevich painting that have been turning up in various newspapers all depict the aspect of this issue that offends me. And no, it’s not the thought of Blagojevich naked.

It’s the idea that a prison guard is included in the painting, putting on rubber gloves and having a look meaning serious business on his face.

As I perceive this so-called work of art, the point is to make us envision in our minds the moments following this scene – the one where Gov. Milorod is probed to ensure he’s not trying to smuggle contraband into whatever federal facility critics envision Blagojevich spending time at in coming years.

Personally, I can do without that scene, considering that we’re not even at the point where the Illinois House of Representatives can tell us exactly what it is that Blagojevich has done that makes him worthy of impeachment and removal from public office.

WE’RE DEFINITELY NOT anywhere near the point of a criminal trial, or sentencing, or the day when we might someday see our governor carted off to a minimum-security federal prison (perhaps the same facility in Oxford, Wis., that former Gov. George Ryan would have preferred to serve his time at).

Yet despite the idea of how premature such an image is, we are at the point where some people want us to speculate about “Blagojevich Behind Bars!” Perhaps some even have the notion of a companion painting of first lady Patti being searched at the federal facility for women near Pekin, Ill.

Now I know that the people who are out for Blagojevich’s scalp (with that mane of Elvis-like hair attached) aren’t going to want to hear this.

But if there are people in our population who are already concocting such images in their heads, I’m wondering if it is possible for Blagojevich someday to get a fair trial. Could we already have a potential jury pool of people with such set views on the incumbent governor that they’re not going to want to hear any of the rhetoric that Blagojevich’s attorneys are starting to espouse (that Rod’s chatter caught on federal wiretaps is not criminal activity in and of itself, but is just political trash talk).

NOW I KNOW that some people feared the same thing when it came to picking a jury for the federal court trial of Ryan and they managed to get through a trial and arrive at a conviction.

But let’s not forget the mess that became of that jury, and the perception among some (including some appeals court judges) that the jury did become tainted against Ryan. I’d hate to think we’re going to have to relive a version of that saga with the Blagojevich trial.

Paintings like the portrait at the Ale House (which officially carries the title, “The Cavity Search”) are trivial in, and of, themselves. But when put together with a lot of other trivial slights, they create the image that could prevent true justice (which involves getting at the truth, not punishment) from ever being achieved.

And the idea of something as stupid and trivial as this painting having a serious negative after-effect scares me.

THERE’S ONE OTHER reason I’m critical of this painting. At least insofar as the image that was published of the painting recently in the Chicago Tribune, it’s terrible as a work of art and as an accurate image.

It doesn’t look like Blagojevich, not even the ridiculous hair.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: I fear the image that will be created should the Old Town Ale House (http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/arts/chi-talk-ale-artdec19,0,5136319.story) decide to display a portrait of California’s governor.

Sarah Palin seems to have started something in Chicago at a tavern in the same neighborhood (http://chicagoargus.blogspot.com/2008/10/sarahs-nude-whats-point.html) as the Second City comedy troupe that originally produced Tina Fey.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chicago’s “Elite Eight” for ‘08

I enjoy this old postcard image of downtown Chicago, from before the days when the Sears Tower and Hancock Center dominated the skyline. Image provided by Chicago Postcard Museum (http://www.chicagopostcardmuseum.org/).

In the history of Chicago, 2008 won’t go down quite as adventurous a news year as, say 1968, 1929 or 1871.

But the year that will be complete in just a dozen more days did have its share of stories worth remembering. Considering this weblog began its existence one year ago today with a promise to “help people better understand what is happening on the shores of Lake Michigan between Evanston and East Chicago, Ind.,” today is as good a day as any to review the year’s top stories.

8 – MILOROD GETS BUSTED: Some people are going to disagree with me and claim I’m downplaying the legal predicament now faced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

I will be the first to admit that moving forward with impeachment of an Illinois governor is unprecedented. So is the degree to which a Chicago public official is accused of such crass (how else do you describe trying to “sell” the former post held by the biggest-name goo goo in politics today?) public behavior.

But I rank it at the bottom of this list for one reason – the real saga is going to come when the legal process progresses to the point where a trial takes place in U.S. District Court (or when Blagojevich enters a “guilty” plea to some sort of lesser charge).

In all likelihood, that will take place some time in 2010 (or 2011, or some year thereafter, if attorney Ed Genson gums up the legal works with enough procedural motions like he did with the criminal case of rapper R. Kelly, whose case took five years to go to trial).

When that happens, I will gladly proclaim the Blagojevich trial the Number One story of the year. Until then, I’ll have to agree that Genson’s characterization earlier this week of the Illinois House committee’s impeachment hearings as “stupid” has an element of truth to it.

7 – SKY-HIGH PRICES GIVE ME GAS: The times I have pumped gasoline in my car this week, I have paid somewhere in the area of $1.60 per gallon It wasn’t all that long ago that the only Chicago-area motorists who paid that much for gas were those stupid enough to use those overly-taxed pumps at filling stations in and near the Loop.

But it comes off as sounding like a bargain basement rate when compared to the more than $4 per gallon we were paying back in the summer months. At one point, Chicago-area motorists were paying an average of $4.24 per gallon (with those downtown pumps charging rates dangerously close to $5 per gallon). We had the highest average in the United States – even higher than isolated places like Alaska and Hawaii.

The end result of this gas price fiasco is that we are now used to paying ridiculous rates for petrol, and are inclined to think of the current price as some sort of bargain for which we should feel grateful. It also has many of us wondering how high gas will go come the summer of 2009.

If it weren’t for the steadily increasing rates (combined with service cuts) for mass transit, I’d be inclined to junk my automobile once and for all.

6 – BASEBALL IS MORE THAN A GAME: It’s a nerve-wracking ordeal.

In one sense, Chicago baseball in 2008 was historic. For the first time in 102 years, both of the major league teams representing the city made it through their six-month regular season ordeal to finish the season in First Place.

Both ball clubs will hold rituals in April to raise banners over their respective ballparks declaring themselves to be “Central Division Champs” of their respective leagues. And the way the White Sox managed to win that division title by winning a string of end-of-season games (with a loss in any one of them bringing their season to a Second Place conclusion) is something that ought to be remembered for decades to come.

Yet what is going to be remembered is the way both the White Sox and Cubs managed to lose the first round of their playoffs (I still see merchandise for sale touting the idea that the Cubs were destined to win the World Series this year). While the Sox managed to be competitive and win a game, the Cubs got swept in such humiliating fashion (for the second year in a row) that many of us wonder what was it about this team that made anyone take it seriously to begin with?

5 – AUCTIONING OFF THE ASSETS: Much has been made of the idea that Rod Blagojevich was selling off a U.S. Senate seat to the highest political bidder. But in a sense, Richard M. Daley did the exact same thing with some of the city’s assets that (if managed properly) can bring in revenue.

I’m talking about the deals made to turn control of Midway Airport from the Chicago Aviation Department to a private company, and another deal to let a private company oversee the parking meters on city streets.

Much has been made of the fact that parking along downtown streets could someday (by 2013) reach a rate of $6.50 per hour.

But what gets to me is why city officials think such income-producing resources are better off in the hands of private companies. While I appreciate the short-term benefit of millions of dollars being pumped into the city coffers, the long-term harm is that there will be nothing left for city government to oversee.

If that’s the case, why don’t we just auction off control of the City Council and Mayor’s office to a private management firm that could do all the actual work of government management? Then, Daley & Co. could sit back and do nothing, which some smart-aleck observers might think is an improvement.

4 – LANE BRYANT BANDIT REMAINS AT-LARGE: It was back in early February that a would-be robber at a Lane Bryant store in southwest suburban Tinley Park got carried away and killed five women (including some who were nothing more than customers).

The senselessness of the slayings caught the national mindset, and people across the country were paying attention to us for a time. It also inspired some of the craziest conspiracy theories (such as the idea that the robber/killer was some sort of homophobe who picked a Lane Bryant store because of the perception that transvestites shop there).

I even remember a few religious fanatics trying to turn the funerals of at least one of the women killed at the store into an excuse to protest against gay people.

But when one puts the mindless nonsense aside, the fact is we still don’t have a clue as to whodunit, or what the motivation for the slayings was (even though we’re pretty sure it will turn out to be something trivial).

3 – SCOTUS BANS FIREARMS BANS, CHICAGO SAYS “NO”: It was earlier this year that the Supreme Court of the United States gave gun nuts their jollies by issuing a ruling that struck down the stringent bans on firearm ownership in the District of Columbia.

The activists who can’t envision life without their high-powered rifles (and view ownership of an AK-47 or an M-16 as the equivalent of the car collector who likes to drive fine sports cars) immediately started filing lawsuits against other cities that try to restrict firearms ownership – including Chicago.

Many of those towns (such as Morton Grove, Ill., the suburb that enacted the original firearms ban) decided to avoid litigation by eliminating their bans, or amending them so as to make them pointless.

But Chicago stood firm, refused to make any changes, and recently got a federal judge to rule that the city’s ban is constitutional. That ruling is now susceptible to challenge in appeals courts, and it is possible that a higher court will try to overturn the local judge’s ruling.

But in my mind, that merely confirms that the high court’s action was a politically partisan move on behalf of a conservative constituency – rather than any serious reservation about the legitimacy of gun bans.

2 – I CAN HEAR THE OLYMPIC MARCH ALREADY: The next summer Olympiad is to be held in 2012 in London, with the next one after that in 2016 still in search of a site.

And there’s a chance that Chicago will become that site, bringing the eyes of the world to our city similar to how the presidential campaign of Barack Obama kept showing off aspects of Chicago life to the nation.

The U.S. Olympic Committee made it official when they officially chose Chicago to be the focus of their efforts to get the Olympics in the United States, rejecting a proposal by Los Angeles.

Now I suppose it’s possible that the International Olympic Committee could be delusional enough to think Madrid, Tokyo or Rio de Janiero is a nicer city than Chicago. Of course, that would mean they’re the same kind of people who think Britney Spears has legitimate musical talent.

The Olympics in our city would have the opportunity to give our city a grand new image, while also pressuring city officials to finally get off their duffs and fix some of those problems (ie., mass transit) that confront our daily lives.

As for those people who claim the headaches of staging the Olympics are not worth it, all I have to say is, “pipe down.” You probably think the Illinois State Fair is a grand old time, instead of the most overrated excuse for a corn-dog fest ever derived.

1 – YES, WE DID: The rise of Barack Obama from the obscurity of Illinois politics to being able to work in the Oval Office without causing the Secret Service to arrest him could very well turn out to be the “Chicago Story of the Decade.”

I can remember after his loss to Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., for a seat in Congress that political people were wondering if the Obama intellect was destined to fizzle out before it ever rose to new levels.

Even at the beginning of ’08, people figured Hillary R. Clinton (the suburban Park Ridge native-turned-Arkansan-turned New Yorker) was the shoo-in for the Democratic Party’s nomination, and Obama was just a pretty face who could give good oratory.

But he gained an advantage with an early win in the Iowa caucuses (where participants don’t view Chicago and Illinois as some alien land), and he ran up a string of primary victories despite the aspects of Chicago culture (Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Antoin Rezko, etc.) that may seem alien to those people not fortunate enough to live in the Second City.

Insofar as the general election, Obama won because a majority of the people decided they liked political newcomer Barack and didn’t care much for the other newcomer – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In the end, Honolulu-native Obama (who like many others adopted Chicago as his home when he started his adult life) caused people from across the country to converge Election Night on Grant Park to celebrate the fact that he will become the first U.S. president with significant Chicago ties (Abraham Lincoln was a Springpatcher, while Ronald Reagan ditched Illinois for California, and Ulysses Grant didn’t live in our state long enough to qualify, in my mind).

And come Jan. 20, when Obama takes the oath of office to become the 44th U.S. president, this country will have a chief executive with an innate knowledge of all things Chicago, including why it is totally absurd to think one can root for both Sox and Cubs come the Cross-town Classic.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Trial courts will have to hear arguments about “morning-after” lawsuit

It is being described as a “blow” to the efforts of activists who want pharmacists to do their jobs and provide medication – regardless of their personal religious beliefs. The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the attempt to dismiss a lawsuit by religious pharmacists without hearing arguments was incorrect.

So now, this case will have to go back to a circuit court, where impassioned arguments both for and against will be heard, and some judge will have to put his personal and legal reputation on the line to make a ruling that is guaranteed to tick off a significant segment of the population – regardless of how he (or she) rules.

AT STAKE IS the “morning-after” pill; the pharmaceutical creation that supposedly allows women who have just had sexual intercourse to take the pill in hopes they can reduce the chances of their partner’s sperm actually fertilizing one of their eggs.

In short, they can reduce (although there are no guarantees that the pill will work 100 percent of the time) the chances of becoming pregnant.

Such medication was designed originally with the intent of helping women who were raped to avoid becoming impregnated by the man who committed a criminal act with their body. Some women would like to use the pills to ward off the chance of pregnancy so as to avoid taking birth control pills or using other contraceptive devices.

So supporters argue this medication is all a part of the concept of giving a woman more control over her own physical body.

BUT THAT IS the same logic used by abortion rights activists when they defend the notion of abortion being a legally available procedure throughout the United States. So naturally, the anti-abortion activists are determined to include this pill in their own arguments on the issue.

They are the ones who arranged for the legal representation for the pharmacists, al of whom argue that they personally oppose abortion and do not believe they should have to dispense any kind of medication they equate with termination of a pregnancy.

Not even if its purpose is to prevent a pregnancy from occurring that might later be terminated.

Generally, the law in our state does allow for pharmacists to get away with this logic, provided they are willing to give women entering their pharmacies the address of another pharmacy where they can receive such medication.

BUT IN THE case of the pharmacists involved in this lawsuit, they don’t even want to go that far. They want to be able to prevent women from having access to the pills anywhere.

Now I realize that pharmacists (strictly speaking) are not medical doctors, and are not bound by the same professional code of ethics as an M.D. So perhaps there is some arcane portion of pharmaceutical ethics that justifies refusing a medication to a person who could use it properly.

But it has always been my understanding that doctors have a certain ethical responsibility to make their treatment available to people who need it. I was never aware of anything that would allow a doctor to refuse to treat a patient because he had some sort of personal disagreement with the person who was ill.

It is even standard procedure in wartime that doctors working with the military will provide treatment for wounds suffered by people on both sides of a military conflict (unless one literally has the mentality of the old “Frank Burns” character from “M*A*S*H” – the film and television show).

MY POINT IN delivering this diatribe? Where does a pharmacist come off denying medication to anyone? I have a hard time thinking that such conduct complies with an ethical code of conduct for the profession.

I would think that if someone really has such qualms about providing medications to people, they ought to think seriously about finding another line of work.

Like I noted before, state law does allow pharmacists to refer women to other pharmacies so they can get the medication. If a pharmacist is willing to pass one someone’s business, that’s their choice. When it comes down to it, that sense of choice and free will is “the American Way.”

But trying to deny the medication outright is NOT the “American Way,” particularly if it involves rural communities where there simply isn’t a lot of choice by people as to where they can purchase their medications.

IT WOULD SEEM to me that pharmacists in those communities are trying to use the limited economic opportunity of rural America to enforce their own code of social morality, which offends me because I always thought a large part of what this country is about consists of allowing people to be left alone – provided their activities do not interfere with others.

I think people ought to spend more time worrying about their own morals and not everybody else’s.

Even though I use this weblog to offer up commentary (and can occasionally get “preachy” about what people ought to do), I also realize this is just a matter of offering up opinion on issues of public concern.

I have always been aware of the fact that not everybody else will agree with me, and has the right to ignore my opinion no matter how correct I am and how wrong they are.

INSOFAR AS THE Illinois Supreme Court’s latest ruling is concerned, it is a little troubling to me in that I would have liked this particularly lawsuit to be over. In my opinion, it qualifies as one of those “frivolous” lawsuits that conservatives and tort reform advocates always say are what is wrong with the legal system today.

Yet the high court disagreed, and now both sides will have to have attorneys argue the merits of the case. I am confident that the lower courts will ultimately do the right thing. They have a knack of doing so, and often are the entity that prevents government officials from going too far with politically partisan behavior turned into public policy.

If that means women ultimately will get to decide for themselves whether they would want to use such a pill (after all, no one will force it down the throat of a woman who has her own moral qualms about abortion), that strikes me as being the correct outcome.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

“I” word talk is getting out of hand

Illinois' high court refused to rush into a rash legal ruling to depose Rod Blagojevich from office. Photograph provided by State of Illinois.

Three cheers for the Illinois Supreme Court, which on Wednesday refused to add to the level of hysteria in Illinois when they did not automatically declare Gov. Rod Blagojevich “unfit” to fulfill his government duties.

The state’s high court did not give a reason in its two-sentence order rejecting the request made last week by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But I’d like to think the court realized that the spirit of the law being used by Madigan in her staff’s legal motion was never meant to apply to Blagojevich’s situation.

SO THEY AREN’T even going to hear arguments, or even pretend that there’s a chance that Blagojevich qualifies as incompetent. He may be, but not in any medical context. That is the key to understanding Wednesday’s actions, which legal observers always considered a long-shot attempt at getting Blagojevich.

The laws in question are the ones to be used when a governor suffers some sort of a disabling injury. He may not be dead (so it’s not a simple matter of succession), but he physically can’t do the job anymore.

The last I saw, Blagojevich was jogging around the block (and boasting that he can do a mile in 8 minutes). He didn’t look comatose to me.

When combined with attorney Ed Genson’s appearance at the Statehouse in Springfield before the Illinois House committee that is studying impeachment, it became apparent Wednesday that Milorod is not going anywhere anytime soon.

IMPEACHMENT IS NOT going to be a simple process (in a democracy, it’s not supposed to be simple to depose a legitimately-elected leader), and it definitely won’t be a short one. And unless someone does an about-face and quits putting gubernatorial punishment at the top of their list of political priorities, it will be a long time before Illinois will get its replacement in the U.S. Senate for President-elect Barack Obama.

I feel like my commentary on the Blagojevich predicament is turning into (to use yet another cliché) a broken record. But nobody is using common sense when thinking about this issue. So I feel the need to rant once again.

Legislators and political observers who are making impeachment or some other form of gubernatorial punishment their primary focus are missing the point.

Blagojevich’s real punishment will come on that day in two or three years when the (likely) former governor will go on trial in U.S. District Court in Chicago. If the evidence is really as strong as U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald says it is (and has much of the public believing it is), then a jury will find the governor guilty of some criminal act.

THAT WOULD PUT a federal judge in a position to impose punishment.

If by some chance Genson is able to punch enough holes in the federal government’s case, then Blagojevich will be found “not guilty,” which would mean that any punishment by legislators would have been uncalled for.

What legislators ought to be doing is figuring out how a new senator for Illinois will be chosen.

Blagojevich signing into law bills aimed at helping autistic children is one thing, but it has become clear that any attempt by the governor to use the authority granted to him in state law to single-handedly pick a replacement for Obama will fail.

NO ONE WILL take that person seriously. They would be the butt of repeated jokes of having purchased their political office. And such a stink would leave the Democratic incumbent weakened in the 2010 elections, so much so that the weakened Republican Party of Illinois might have a chance at winning the election – no matter whom they nominate.

Now I know a lot of people, particularly those national observers who don’t really have a clue about Chicago (and probably were the types who wanted the all-New York presidential race of Democrat Hillary Clinton versus Republican Rudy Giuliani, with a third party candidacy by Mike Bloomberg) are getting all bent out of shape about the notion that a special statewide election will NOT be held to pick a replacement senator.

It was laughable watching MSNBC “flavor of the month” Rachel Maddow the other day try to harangue Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (who in that cheap cap standing in front of the Statehouse looked like the stereotype of a South Side Irish guy) for not giving the Republicans their way in having a special election.

What I don’t like about the idea of a special election is (aside from the cost) the time factor. Because it’s not just one election. It’s two – a primary and a general election.

DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS (and the Green Party, now that I think about it) would have to put through a rushed process to pick nominees. Then they would have to go at it for a general election.

Meanwhile, all this time would be spent with Illinois one legislator short in the U.S. Senate. I’d rather see a scenario that gives Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn the power to make an appointment. That is what is in Illinois’ best interest.

Now I don’t know for sure what is going through Blagojevich’s mind. I doubt that anybody outside of first lady Patti really knows what he’s thinking. After reading her crude (but incredibly accurate) quotes of what she said on wiretap tapings, I would think she’s miffed enough to refuse to tell anybody anything these days.

But I have been hearing enough to think that Blagojevich could be persuaded to let someone else fill the Senate seat, IF given something that creates the perception that he’s getting a break.

BUT THAT WON’T happen, because too many people are out for blood (and probably were grossly offended at Genson’s suggestion Wednesday that the state – ie, taxpayers – ought to pay for Blagojevich’s legal fees).

Now I realize that talk of impeachment is really just another political maneuver, and that the General Assembly has the legal authority to do whatever it wants – no matter how absurd.

But I’m starting to wonder (the one-time history student in me often does) how the likely activity of the next few months will be remembered some 50 to 100 years from now.

Will Blagojevich’s activities really be so egregious that a hard-line stance will be appreciated? Or is our Legislature headed for a series of over-reactions that will make serious scholars view the whole affair as a matter of political people letting their venom for a not-so-well-liked colleague run amok?

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EDITOR’S NOTES: The newly elected U.S. Senate is likely to be one member short when (http://www.reuters.com/article/politicsNews/idUSTRE4BG7SQ20081217) it takes control on Jan. 6.

Although not directly on the latest activity, national pundit (and Chicago native) Georgie Ann Geyer tries to explain how Blagojevich fits into the big picture of politics (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ucgg/20081211/cm_ucgg/corruptchicagopoliticsalsoindireneedofchange) and corruption.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Blagojevich Dems? Don’t make me laugh

This has been battering about in my mind since Monday night, when I heard long-time WBBM-TV political reporter Mike Flannery end his report about the beginning of impeachment proceedings with the phrase “Blagojevich Democrats.”

Flannery’s point was to tell us viewers how Republicans were planning to use Blagojevich’s political plight to try to taint all Democrats with regard to future elections.

THEY’RE GOING TO claim that the governor is the prototypical Democrat. If they can imply that all Democrats probably have done something in their careers that would be worthy of indictment (if only the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago had time to investigate all of them), perhaps they think they can win back some significant control within state government in the 2010 elections.

To go bilingual for a moment, the concept of Democrats as clones of Rod Blagojevich is caca.

The thing that is most absurd whenever Republicans (or anyone from outside of Chicago) tries to talk about Chicago’s political culture is that they can’t seem to comprehend the degree to which it is a batch of differing factions that can’t stand each other, but tolerate each other to try to advance their political interests. This turn-of-the-century postcard of the Illinois Statehouse may accurately depict the current attitude toward Rod Blagojevich.

That is why many Democrats are going to be the ones who most vehemently go after Blagojevich. It is a chance to take down someone they never liked much to begin with, and it means one less person they have to deal with in terms of trying to amass political influence. It is why the notion that Barack Obama himself is not tainted by Blagojevich's alleged actions is a very real possibility.

IT IS ALSO why the notion of a “Blagojevich Democrat” is ridiculous.

About the only person who truly falls into that category is retiring Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago. It was his control of the state Senate and his willingness to squash punitive measures designed by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, that helped keep some of the gubernatorial hostility in check.

Yet what is the point of deriving labels with which to lambast Jones? He is retiring from the Legislature following a 36-year career representing South Side interests at the Statehouse, and it would appear that any chance Blagojevich would appoint him to the U.S. Senate seat so as to maintain an ally in high political places has fizzled out.

Does anybody seriously think that Madigan is a “Blagojevich Democrat?”

THIS IS THE man whose opposition to the governor’s ways has been steadfast enough that the Legislature has gone into ridiculous overtime sessions the past two years. The reason there has been so much conflict in Illinois government that has prevented things from getting done is because many Democrats have been willing to say “no” to the governor – even though he is the first Illinois governor of their political party since the mid-1970s.

Madigan himself tries to take this point to an extreme, saying during a Monday night interview with WTTW-TV that Republicans led by Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, were, “the biggest enablers of Blagojevich over the last two years.”

He argues that Republicans, in an attempt to gain some influence against Democratic majorities in both the Illinois House and state Senate, sided with the governor on select issues – even though now, Cross is among Blagojevich’s most verbal critics.

But Madigan is such the opposite of a “Blagojevich Democrat” that he literally refuses to attend meetings with the governor to discuss state government business (instead, forcing House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, to attend in his place).

DOES ANYBODY BELIEVE that Mayor Richard M. Daley is a “Blagojevich Democrat?”

If anything, Blagojevich as governor has always been something of a rival to Daley for political control. Watching Blagojevich squirm has to be a boost for Daley and the City Hall crew – even if just for the reason that every moment spent by the FBI investigating the governor is one less moment spent paying attention to Chicago city government proper.

In fact, just who are these “Blagojevich Democrats?” I honestly can’t think of any. The Blagojevich era has reached its level of rancor because the man has managed to make political enemies on virtually all flanks (even though every Democrat in Chicago has his share of political enemies among his so-called colleagues).

Keep in mind that Chicago Tribune-commissioned poll people like to cite – the one that says Blagojevich only has a 13 percent approval rating (which may have dropped to 8 percent once details of last week’s criminal complaint became public knowledge).

THERE IS NO way that the governor could truly reach a level that low if there were any sizable number of “Blagojevich Democrats” in existence. Republicans in Illinois just don’t have the influence all by themselves to create an 87 percent majority of the public who do NOT approve of the governor’s performance on the job.

What this phrase amounts to is nothing more than cheap rhetoric meant to try to bolster the chances that a Republican or two can actually win a statewide office in the 2010 elections. Could it really be evidence of just how weak the pool of prospective candidates for those elections will be?

Remember that two-time statewide loser Joe Birkett (the DuPage County state’s attorney) is likely to be at the top of the GOP ticket. This is a party that needs a blow of historic proportions to hit the Democratic Party for them to have a chance to regain anything.

“Blagojevich Democrats” is nothing more than cheap rhetoric. I’d like to think Chicago and/or Illinois voters will have enough sense to see it for what little it is when it comes up in campaign speeches and television spots in upcoming months.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: Democrats in Chicago have never learned to “play nice” with each other (http://chicagoargus.blogspot.com/2008/01/is-city-halls-political-culture-to.html). That is what makes the idea of “Blagojevich Democrats” absurd. Where were these “Blagojevich Democrats” when the Legislature was stuck in a stalemate over the issue of (http://chicagoargus.blogspot.com/2008/01/statehouse-could-pass-for-ricks-cafe.html) mass transit funding?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

MADIGAN vs. BLAGOJEVICH: Which politico will take down the other first?

On a day when gubernatorial supporters (there are still a few) were tossing out hints that they might be amenable to measures that allow Rod Blagojevich the appearance of remaining in office, his critics responded with a hard, crushing blow.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, is having the state House of Representatives begin the process of impeachment.

SO THIS IS going to turn into a race – literally. Will the Legislature be able to put together articles of impeachment before Blagojevich takes some action out of spite that would make impeachment a moot point?

For those people who think that a Blagojevich resignation or recusal from office would be a good thing that would spare Illinoisans much hassle, think again. The people who run our state’s Legislature are making it clear they’re more interested in taking Blagojevich down.

The Illinois House now has a bipartisan committee that is studying Blagojevich’s conduct to determine exactly what it is they are impeaching him for, and they say something could be ready for consideration by early 2009. Keep in mind that all those things the U.S. attorney’s office claims the governor did are for so-called violations of federal law.

It’s not like federal prosecutors are going to subject their evidence to scrutiny now by legislators when they want to have it fresh and powerful when/if Blagojevich goes on trial – likely in a couple of years.

SO THE ILLINOIS General Assembly is going to have to come up with its own evidence that Blagojevich has done something worthy of impeachment by the Illinois House, and a trial by the state Senate that could remove him from office – if a majority of senators were to vote to convict.

That is the credibility problem the Legislature has now. Lawmakers are more than willing to put up large-enough majorities to remove him from office, even though they really don’t know why they’d be doing so.

And if legislators are not careful, they are going to create an impression of being little more than a political lynch mob – out to get Blagojevich for anything.

That is going to be the angle Blagojevich will play up as he appears determined to leave the Illinois gubernatorial post only if he is given something to compensate him for the political damage that has occurred to his career in public service.

IT HELPS HIS case that he has hired a Chicago attorney with a record of being willing to take on high-profile clients with negative public images. Blagojevich now has an attorney who’s not going to be intimidated by Madigan’s legislative power. He’ll fight, and perhaps he’ll win. Don’t forget that in the case of rapper R. Kelly, Ed Genson actually got his client a conviction – even though many people remain convinced Kelly’s kinky behavior on those videotapes ought to be illegal.

So now, the news coverage of the Blagojevich saga is literally going to become a “horserace story.” The derogatory term for campaign coverage that focuses on the superficial will literally be applicable because it will now focus on whether the Legislature in Springfield, Ill., can get articles of impeachment prepared quickly enough.

In theory, they’re also considering measures that would merely take away the Illinois governor’s authority to fill an Illinois vacancy in the U.S. Senate, without directly challenging Blagojevich’s legal authority to remain governor.

But that measure seems to be on hold. Legislators seem to have decided that “impeachment” is the way they want to go – probably because the word has an ominous sound to it that will make it appear as though Blagojevich is being punished now for his actions as governor (rather than waiting for the federal courts to work their way through the process and go to trial – don’t forget that the R. Kelly case in Cook County Court took nearly five years before a trial took place).

NOW THAT THE Legislature is taking a hard line, it won’t surprise me to see Blagojevich give up on any consideration of resigning without a deal in place to give him something, anything, to assuage his ego.

One other point about Monday’s activity caught my attention.

Madigan at one point tried to give the impression that nothing about Blagojevich’s alleged conduct surprised him, telling reporter-types, “I’ve had a chance to get to know Mr. Blagojevich over six years, so I was not surprised.

“In light of what we’ve all seen, … how can anyone be surprised?” Madigan said.

IT FITS IN with many past statements by Madigan that Blagojevich’s actions as governor are irrational. Yet the two men have known each other much longer than six years.

After all, Blagojevich was once one of the rank-and-file legislators who answered to Madigan from 1993-96, when Rod represented the Ravenswood and Lincoln Square neighborhoods in the Illinois House, before moving up to representing Chicago’s Northwest Side for six years in Congress.

Back in those days in Springfield, there was the impression that Blagojevich was singled out by Madigan for hazing and abuse because of his family ties – his father-in-law, then and now, is Alderman Dick Mell. It was often perceived that the Madigan abuse of Blagojevich was meant to be a message to Mell that he had better not think he had any special influence in legislative issues, just because he got his son-in-law elected to an Illinois House seat.

Even though Blagojevich and Mell have since had a falling out of their own, we need to remember that Madigan and Blagojevich have had their differences for decades. None of this nasty rhetoric ought to be considered new, and I can’t help but think that Madigan and his allies are enjoying the governor’s predicament just a bit too much.

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