When former New York governor Eliot Spitzer stood with his wife and announced that he was resigning because of his penchant for $5,000/hour prostitutes, he peppered his speech with the all-too familiar words of the fallen American politician in retreat, using words like remorse, atone, deeply sorry, failings, faith, trust, and sincerely apologize. Not so the words of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich this Friday after being impeached by the Illinois House, and for that, you gotta love him. Governor Blagojevich has provided a much needed, and rather entertaining, contrast to the typical Christian response to political scandal.
“I am a sinner. I admit my sins. I’ll give you all the sordid details for $24.95. Please forgive me and help pay for my legal expenses.”
Eliot Spitzer and numerous other sloppy politicians of late have defaulted to the tried and true model of sinner seeking absolution through public repentance. These scenes are made even more painful to watch when the wife of said sex-scandalized politician stands by his side, looking remarkably stable for someone who is surely overdosing on tranquilizers. On the one hand, you can’t blame them for trying. The prevailing American culture of tell-all confession guarantees a book deal and an appearance on Oprah if one follows the Christian path. “I am a sinner. I admit my sins. I’ll give you all the sordid details for $24.95. Please forgive me and help pay for my legal expenses.” On the other hand, the saccharine hypocrisy of the exit speech and subsequent talk show appearances have grown tiresome. Christian values being paraded after you’ve been caught abusing power or literally with your pants down seem transparent and mocking of the truly pious.
Blagojevich has instead chosen a decidedly Greek tone, filled with the hubris of a protagonist in a Greek tragedy. He hasn’t taken a single question from the press in the month since the FBI arrested him for admitting on tape, “the Senate seat is a $#&@*!*# valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” Regarding President-elect Obama’s preference for senator, Blagojevich refused because, “…they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. #!@* them!” Nice. But he has delivered two combative statements, insisting that he has done nothing that amounts to a criminal offense, ending by quoting poets Kipling and Tennyson. The amount of bravado he has mustered is reminiscent of Al Pacino in Scarface. Being taken out in a mob hit seems more fitting for this character than impeachment in a stuffy state house with a bunch of questionable minor politicians passing judgement in the hopes that they will not also be discovered.
Despite invoking a different era and ethical mood, the litany of moralizing adjectives being used to reduce him have been overwhelming. Politicians great and small keep trying to take him down by shaming him, but this is not a man who will be shamed. He will not be judged in the Christian way, and there in lies the lesson. For what he has tried to point out is that his supposed moral failings are not unique or all that extreme. Using power for the pursuit of blatant self-interest and advancement is a long-standing tradition and one that even garners a certain kind of respect in political circles. The senate seat is a valuable thing, and politicians around the country know it. So what can we learn from what Illinois Representative Jack D. Franks called the “freak show that has become Illinois government”?
From the President down to the state houses, we have elected politicians who have been unable to temper their alarming self-aggrandizement with even basic knowledge of policy or attempts to advance the public good.
Simply this – Americans have been demanding too much of the wrong kind of qualities from their leaders. They want, and politicians pretend to possess, a moral compass that rarely exists in people with as much power as governors and senators and presidents are entrusted. But what has not been demanded on either side of the political isle is what is so glaringly absent today – competence. The basic proficiency required to govern, lead, and inspire. ‘Rod the Clod’, as he is affectionately called in Chicago circles, is painfully stupid. He is actually unable to maneuver a deal for himself without cursing like a sailor or being caught on tape after knowing for years that he is under investigation. It’s the incompetent running around in snowy circles outside his Chicago home that should most deeply offend. What does Rod the Clod possess? Hair.
From the President down to the state houses, we have elected politicians who have been unable to temper their alarming self-aggrandizement with even basic knowledge of policy or attempts to advance the public good. President-elect Obama appears to break the Illinois mold both in intelligence and moral compass. But if he were to fail us over the next four years, let it be in giving in to the power of his office, rather than leading us yet again into the abyss because of his or his cabinet’s failure to do the difficult, thoughtful work of freeing us from the tragedy of incompetence.