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A Rotten Bunch

What is it with the corruption and dishonesty of Illinois politicians?

Steve Chapman
June 10, 2010

Running for Congress in 2000, Mark Kirk told a Chicago Tribune reporter he had almost drowned in Lake Michigan as a teenager. "I should be at the bottom of that lake, but I was given a rare gift of a second life," he confided. "And to be given a second chance means it has to mean something. For me, that means making a difference through public service, and it all comes from the lake."

This brought to mind what Oscar Wilde said of one of Charles Dickens' scenes: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." After Kirk's earnest tale, no one should have been surprised that he has a genius for creative self-promotion.

Now we learn that Kirk, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Illinois and a member of the Navy Reserve, made unfounded claims to have been the Navy's intelligence officer of the year, commanded the Pentagon war room, come under fire in Iraq, and served in both the 1990-91 and the 2003 Iraq wars. But even now, he can't give straight, believable answers about his embellishments.

The congressman has never been one to minimize his talents. Once, in a candidate debate, he responded to a question about immigration reform by announcing grandly, "I could answer that question in Spanish, since I attended Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico." Kirk finds himself amazing and expects you to agree.

But his resume inflation has given voters a powerful reason to abandon him in a race that should have been idiot-proof. This year is shaping up to be a Republican bonanza, Kirk is moderate enough to appeal beyond his own party, and his Democratic opponent, state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, has all the heft of a helium balloon.

Maybe this seat, like the Cubs, carries some curse. It was once occupied by Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, whose ethical controversies led to her defeat in 1998 by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. He was so honest and capable—I'm not joking here—that the Illinois Republican Party found him impossible to bear, inducing his retirement after one term.

In the next election, one serious contender was accused of physically abusing his wife, another allegedly asked his wife to have sex with him in front of strangers at sex clubs, and a third moved abruptly from Maryland to enter the race. Prevailing over them all was Barack Obama, who showed little interest in being a senator and decided he would rather be president.

After Obama departed with two years left in his term, an egotistical mediocrity named Roland Burris took over. He was appointed by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose alleged efforts to auction off the seat led to the federal corruption trial that began this week.

But with the incumbent unwilling to take his chances with the voters, the office will fall to either Giannoulias or Kirk, who seem to be determined to raise our opinion of Burris.

Giannoulias ran for treasurer in 2006 on the strength of his experience as an officer at Broadway Bank, which it turned out made loans to convicted felons while he was there and was closed down by the government in April. Now he indicates he was fetching coffee when all the bad decisions were made.

By this point, the average Illinoisan, ordered at gunpoint to choose between the two, would reply, "Shoot." It's a familiar dilemma in a place where state government has four branches: executive, legislative, judicial, and correctional.

What is it about Illinois? The state has a history of corruption and self-dealing so extensive that it perpetuates itself. Many honest, well-meaning people avoid our political arena for the same reason they avoid swimming in the sewer: It's nasty, and their presence doesn't make it smell any better.

Kirk was notable for avoiding any hint of ethical scandal, but his very distance from the usual muck may have led him astray. He was not satisfied being smarter and better than your run-of-the-mill Illinois politician. He had to make himself out to be a combination of Superman and Beaver Cleaver.

But voters are not expecting greatness or nobility from their senator. They only ask the political gods to send someone who doesn't lie, steal, or bargain with corrupt officeholders.

The political gods have given their answer to that prayer: Ha. Ha. Ha.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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