Column: Obama's mystical (national media) disconnect from sleazy Chicago politics
Will Barack Obama's presidential candidacy serve his state and city by finally drawing national attention to the sleazy and corrupt politics of Illinois and Chicago?
It is all about context. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate's politics were born in Chicago. Yet he is presented to the nation as not truly being of this place, as if he floats just above the political corruption here, uninfected, untouched by the stain of it or by any sin of commission or omission. It is all so very mystical.
Perhaps viewing Obama as a Chicago political creature would conflict with the established national media narrative of Obama as a reformer. Actually, there's no "perhaps" about it.
"I think I have done a good job in rising politically in this environment without being entangled in some of the traditional problems of Chicago politics," Obama told reporters and editors at a Chicago Tribune editorial board meeting several weeks ago.
Yes, an excellent job. Except for his dalliance with his indicted real estate fairy, Tony Rezko, a relationship Obama considers a mistake, the senator has not played the fly to Mayor Richard Daley's spider. Almost, but not quite.
"I know there are those like John Kass who would like me to decry Chicago politics more frequently, and I'll leave that to his editorial commentary," Obama said.
Not the politics, just the corruption, I said then, wishing....
...silently that he had decried it all, that he'd stood up years ago and pointed to the list of sleazy deals, pointed an angry finger at the Duffs, the white, Outfit-connected drinking buddies of Daley who received $100 million in affirmative action contracts through City Hall.
That's an easy political commercial for the Republicans: Mobbed-up white guys party at the old Como Inn with Daley, and they get $100 million in city affirmative action contracts and Daley doesn't know how it happened and Obama endorses the mayor in the name of reform.
Obama had nothing to do with the Duff deal. But he kept mum. He has endorsed Daley, endorsed Daley's hapless stooge Todd Stroger for president of the Cook County Board. These are not the acts of a reformer, but of a guy who, as we say in Chicago, won't make no waves and won't back no losers.
Obama the reformer is backed by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Daley boys. He is spoken for by Daley's own spokesman, David Axelrod (Ed. Note: Axelrod is also a former Tribune political reporter). He was launched into his U.S. Senate by machine power broker and state Senate President Emil Jones (D-ComEd).
Sen. Obama did give his word of honor that if elected president, he would retain corruption-busting U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, no easy vow, given that Daley is threatened by Fitzgerald, and that the corruption case against Rezko is about to be handed to the jury.
As a candidate, Obama will do what he has to do to win. My argument is not with him -- but with the national political media pack that refuses to look closely at what Chicago is. They're fixated on what it was, and they think it's clean now.
And they've spent years crafting, then cleaving to, their eager and trembling Obama narrative, a tale of great yearning, almost mythic and ardently adolescent, a tale in which Obama is portrayed as a reformer, a dynamic change agent about to do away with the old thuggish politics.
It's as if Axelrod channeled it, wearing a peaked Merlin hat. Obama is a South Sider and does not hail from Camelot or Mt. Olympus or the lush forests of mythical Narnia.
I've joked that reporters feel compelled to hug him, in their copy, as if he were the cuddly faun, the Mr. Tumnus of American politics. But I was only kidding. The real Mr. Tumnus never had Billy Daley or Ted Kennedy carving up Cabinet appointments.
So why the disconnect? Why is Obama allowed to campaign as a reformer, virtually unchallenged by the media, though he's a product of Chicago politics and has never condemned the wholesale political corruption in his hometown the way he condemns those darn Washington lobbyists?
For an answer as to when pundits will ever put Illinois corruption in context, I called on Tom Bevan, executive director of the popular political website RealClearPolitics.com (which directs readers to my column on occasion) and a Chicagoan.
"To a large degree, the media has accepted much of the Obama narrative thus far," Bevan told me. "He's risen so quickly, but his history hasn't been bogged down with an association of Chicago politics and I can't tell you why exactly, except perhaps that some may have bought into the established narrative and can't separate themselves from it."
Bevan added: "And I don't know if the country understands just how corrupt the system is in Illinois. People don't see it. They're flying over us, cruising at 30,000 feet."
Our Chicago politics sure must seem sweet from that high altitude as journalists fly by. From up there, our politics must smell pretty, like vanilla beans in a jar, or lavender potpourri: you know, something truly authentic and real.
-- John Kass
John Kass is a local Chicago columnist whose work occasionally appears on the Swamp, of the Tribune's Washington bureau.
Photo Credits: AP