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Playing It Safe

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008; 10:17 AM

I will say this: Barack Obama could have expressed a bit more disgust.

In doing the can't-comment-because-it's-under-investigation routine Tuesday, the president-elect limited himself to such bromides as "sad" in discussing the Blagojevich scandal. Actually, it's more than sad. Based on the wiretapped conversations recounted in the criminal complaint, it's an outrageous, appalling and thoroughly disgusting glimpse of government for sale.

The governor of Illinois deserves the presumption of legal innocence, but not the presumption that he acted honorably. And Obama, without prejudicing the case, needs to find a way to express how unacceptable he finds all this -- not least because it involves the auctioning off of his Senate seat.

By yesterday Obama's position had "evolved": Blago should resign (though he said it via a written statement). Why did it take the president-elect 24 hours to reach that conclusion, when the facts haven't changed? Is that kind of excessive caution going to define his presidency?

Still, Obama is exonerated on the tapes by none other than F-bomb Rod, who calls him a "mother [expletive]" and complains that the only thing O will offer for having his person picked for the Senate is gratitude. Obama, it turns out, won't pay to play. That's not how things are done in bleeping Chicago!

The facts, of course, didn't stop some conservative pundits from arguing that Obama has now been tainted by association with the Chicago machine.

But if Obama refused to play, how can he be blamed for the fact that Blagojevich, with whom he's never been close, was (according to the tapes) looking for a reward from the Senate appointment (as well as trying to squeeze the Chicago Tribune on the Wrigley Field deal)?

Obama's aides may have had normal political conversations about the appointment with the governor or his loyalists. Some of that might prove embarrassing as this thing unwinds.

One other thought: Many journalists thought Patrick Fitzgerald was the devil when he was jailing or threatening to jail reporters in the Plame case. Now he seems to be garnering praise as a square-jawed, no-nonsense lawman.

But prosecutors are not supposed to go beyond describing the allegations contained in the criminal complaint that was unsealed Tuesday morning. From the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct: "The prosecutor in a criminal case shall refrain from making extrajudicial comments that would pose a serious and imminent threat of heightening public condemnation of the accused, except for statements that are necessary to inform the public of the nature and extent of the prosecutor's action and that serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose."

So Fitzgerald can read all the bleeping details he wants, but he's not supposed to make prejudicial proclamations such as "Lincoln would turn over in his grave." Yet journalists are so busy seizing on such sound bites that few have questioned whether their onetime antagonist has gone too far.

NYT: "The political fortunes of the besieged governor of Illinois unraveled further on Wednesday, after President-elect Barack Obama joined a near-unanimous chorus of political leaders calling for him to resign."


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