Playing It Safe

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."

"If the wiretapped dialogue in the criminal complaint against Rod Blagojevich reveals anything," the Chicago Tribune says, "it's that the governor can deftly hold his own in the pantheon of political profanity."

Ya think?

"A cleaned-up version of the complaint would be cratered with blacked-out f-bombs, yet etiquette experts and anti-cursing crusaders say the language, which once would have made the nation blush, now comes across as almost de rigueur."

Atlantic's Marc Ambinder deconstructs Obama's tepid reaction:

"The first instinct of this [Chicago] inner circle was human and understandable; try to get away with adding as little fuel as possible to the combustion. That's always the first instinct of public figures when they (a) have something to side and (b) have nothing to hide. Obama has nothing to hide; indeed, the evidence so far suggests that his allies were repulsed by Blagojevich's entreaties. The trouble is that the public has been so familiar with the traditional script that politicians use when they're in trouble, and that script opens with the politician's somewhat cagey denial (even if the caginess was not intended) and it continues with the associates of that politician claiming that the questions are illegitimate and that the press is only searching for a head to spike on a pike. Then, the politician notices the criminal investigation and claims prudence."

Yep -- he looked like a typical pol.

The New Republic's Noam Scheiber says Rod didn't really get Barack:

"What's most remarkable to me -- at least once you get beyond the cartoonish brazenness, and, of course, the idea that Blagojevich had presidential aspirations -- is how spectacularly Blago misunderstands Obama himself. Among the various prizes he contemplates prying from the 'President-elect' are a cabinet seat (preferably HHS, but, as 'Deputy Governor A' points out, energy secretary 'makes the most money'), an ambassadorship, a position as head of a private foundation like the Red Cross, and some top role in the Change to Win coalition, which would apparently come about by way of an elaborate three-way trade involving Obama and SEIU. According to the indictment, Blago hoped to bargain for such a position in the manner of '. . . a sports agent shopping a potential free agent to various teams, stating "how much are you offering, [President-elect]? . . . '[President-elect], you want it? Fine. But, its got to be good or I could always take [the Senate seat]." ' In response to which one feels compelled to ask: Is there anything in Obama's background that suggests he'd react well to such an explicit shakedown?

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Obama can't be ruthless, opportunistic, or calculating when he has to be. He obviously can. Just that Obama's a guy who: a.) likes to think of himself as aboveboard and noble even when he's not behaving that way; b.) absolutely hates being told what to do (think of how long he resisted attacking Hillary while the press insisted he had to); and c.) is absolutely fanatical about process (I'm told that even people who expect to land senior positions in the administration have to submit their resumes to the website). It may be possible to arrange a political trade with such a person. But you certainly won't get far by issuing Scott Boras-esque demands. Then again, subtlety doesn't appear to be Blago's strong suit."

But Politico sees nothing but trouble for the man from Hyde Park:

"At first blush, Barack Obama comes out of the Rod Blagojevich scandal smelling like a rose. The prosecutor at a news conference seemed to give the president-elect a seal of approval, and the Illinois governor himself was caught on tape complaining that Obama was not interested in crooked schemes.

"But make no mistake: The Blagojevich scandal is nothing but a stink bomb tossed at close range for Obama and his team. Legal bills, off-message headlines, and a sustained attempt by Republicans to show that Obama is more a product of Illinois's malfeasance-prone political culture than he is letting on -- all are likely if the Blagojevich case goes to trial or becomes an extended affair. Obama and his aides have so far mounted a tight-lipped defense, publicly distancing themselves from Blagojevich's alleged plans to profit personally from his power to fill Obama's newly vacant Senate seat with firm but vague denials of any involvement."

The scandal shoe is now on the other political foot, Michelle Malkin says:

"Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi can stop clucking now. For the last three years, Democratic leaders cheered GOP ethics woes. Dean accused Republicans of making 'their culture of corruption the norm.' Pelosi touted cleanliness as a liberal virtue. But with the eye-popping pay-for-play and bribery case against Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich topping a year of nationwide Democratic scandals, the corruption chickens are coming home to roost. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called the breadth and depth of charges against Blagojevich and his Democratic Chief of Staff John Harris 'staggering.' That's an understatement. Anything that breathed was a potential shakedown target. It's the Chicago way. Democrat Blago's so dirty he'd hit up a children's hospital for money. Oh, wait. He's accused of doing that, too . . .

"Fitzgerald says President-Elect Obama was not implicated in the plethora of charges against Democrats Blago and Harris. The national media went out of their way to absolve him, too. But declaring Team Obama's hands clean -- especially with Blago crony and indicted Obama donor Tony Rezko in the middle of it all -- is premature."

In Salon, Edward McClelland views the governor as a product of his environment:

"It's almost hard to blame Blagojevich for the trouble he's in. The odds were against him from the beginning. Three of his last six predecessors -- Otto Kerner, Dan Walker and George Ryan -- have gone to prison. Ryan, who as secretary of state sold drivers' licenses for bribes, is languishing in a federal pen in Wisconsin, pining for a Christmas pardon from President Bush.

"When Blagojevich was elected, he promised to clean up the state's 'pay to play' political culture. But nobody really believed him. He was the governor, for God's sake. The governor is the last guy who would do something like that. Who benefits more from shaking down political contributors?

"I never expected Hot Rod to get into a mess this hot, though. Frankly, I always considered him an amiable goof obsessed with hair care and jogging. Not smart enough to be competent, but not cunning or venal enough to hatch a Nixonian scheme like peddling a U.S. Senate seat as though it were a stolen flat-screen."

Here's a possible defense for Blagojevich, from Powerline's Scott Johnson:

"Is Blago nuts? That's the first question that crossed my mind yesterday upon hearing of the charge that forced the authorities to arrest Blago yesterday before he exercised his power to appoint Obama's successor. He must feel the exhilaration and invulnerability of the pathological narcissist.

"Is insanity a defense to corruption charges? That's the second question that crossed my mind yesterday. It is, though I'm not aware of it ever having been pursued in such a case. Perhaps the time has come."

Obama, meanwhile, is doing pretty well:

"President-elect Barack Obama is entering the White House with an enormous reservoir of goodwill from an American public that is rooting for his success in the face of bad economic times, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds . . . The poll found 73% of American adults approve of the way he is handling the transition and his preparations for becoming president." And Bush? "Just 18% say they are going to miss him when he is gone."

Had enough of politicians (Spitzer, McGreevey, Foley, Stevens, Craig, Jefferson and on and on) in trouble with the law? There's a new probe, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports:

"Federal investigators are looking into allegations that a longtime friend and benefactor tried to steer money to Sen. Norm Coleman, the Pioneer Press has learned.

"Agents with the FBI have talked to or made efforts to talk to people in Texas familiar with the allegations, according to a source familiar with the situation.

"Houston is where the first of two lawsuits was filed alleging Nasser Kazeminy, a Bloomington financier, tried to steer $100,000 to Coleman via his wife's Minneapolis employer. The second suit, filed in Delaware, alleges Kazeminy initially tried to get money directly to the senator. Both Coleman and Kazeminy have denied any wrongdoing."

There goes Obama, naming one of those over-credentialed Cabinet members again:

"President-elect Barack Obama will tap Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as his Energy secretary."

What about an appointee to represent the ordinary folks, huh?

Back in Washington, Michelle Cottle is training her eye on a neglected part of the transition:

"What does it take to get tagged as a shameless status-seeker in a town fueled by the eternal quest for access to power? Ask Beth Dozoretz, the former Democratic National Committee finance chair with a legendary affinity for snuggling up to the rich and powerful. (She asked pal Bill Clinton to be godfather to her now-ten-year-old daughter, Melanne.) It seems that, in the waning days of the presidential race, Dozoretz found herself at a dinner party with Michelle Obama. Not one to miss an opportunity, Dozoretz slipped Mrs. Obama a note from Melanne, in which the precocious fourth grader urged the Obamas to enroll their two girls, Malia and Sasha, at D.C.'s prestigious Sidwell Friends School.

"Shortly after Election Day, she and her husband, health care mogul Ron Dozoretz, popped up in the press talking about the note-passing and elaborating on their pro-Sidwell lobbying. All across Northwest D.C., tongues set to clucking: Tacky! Shameless! How could they be so out there? It wasn't so much that the Dozoretzes had attempted to cement a connection with the new First Family via their daughter's school. After all, veterans of establishment Washington understand that ingratiating oneself with a new commander-in-chief can require aggressive p.r. as well as exceedingly pointy elbows. Said veterans, however, prefer that the scramble be conducted without the vulgar details spilling out into public view. The sense that the Dozoretzes were publicly boasting of their sucking up was deemed downright embarrassing, prompting some observers to express disappointment that such a naked status grab didn't prompt the Obamas to send their girls elsewhere . . .

"The Beltway scramble for a piece of presidential prestige has begun, with all of the plotting, jockeying, and backbiting of a small-town beauty pageant."

That's what makes it delicious.

The Gregory era begins Sunday on "Meet the Press," and Jack Shafer has some advice:

"Get rid of the Russert regulars. Who hasn't heard enough from James Carville and Mary Matalin by now? Hasn't plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin run out of gas? Doesn't William Safire phone it in? Can't NBC do the right thing and give Andrea Mitchell her own show? And why does the mere sight of David Broder, Bob Shrum, E.J. Dionne, or Peggy Noonan on television make me want to kill myself?

"Blacklisting these usual guests from the Meet the Press round table and recruiting a younger band of participants would mark the passing of an era and acknowledge the arrival of a young president. It's not even a very radical step. Russert was known to experiment with formula, adding Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh to the mix. So it's not too much to ask some new voices to suit up for play . . .

"Instead of relying on guests for news, a Sunday show could break the mold by filing a reported story that makes news. (The lack of reported news stories on the Sunday show is one of economics. Reported stories are about 10 times more expensive to produce than studio chatter.) Lacking the budget or gumption to break news, Gregory's show could at least broadcast a reported segment that put into context the top story that everybody was about to discuss."

Reporting -- what a concept.

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