WHAT OTHERS SAY: Pay-to-play goes on despite 14-year prison term for Blagojevich

Thursday, December 8, 2011 | 5:42 p.m. CST

In the 14-year prison sentence handed to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday are tragedies enough for a Greek chorus.

That Blagojevich got what he deserved isn't one of them. He was convicted in June on 18 counts of corruption for actions during his six years as Illinois' chief executive.

But Blagojevich was a talented, likeable guy who — even when his hand was out — had his heart in the right place. He had a heart for the poor, the elderly and the sick.

But he was chronically lazy and undisciplined, unwilling to bear down on the hard work of governance.

He could have been a contender, a Serbian kid from the streets with enough bravado and personality to grab the brass ring. Something the Greeks said about heroes with a fatal flaw applies here. Or, in his case, fatal flaws.

There is tragedy, too, in that his daughters, Amy, 15, and Anne, 8, will see their father only on visiting days.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel laid the blame where it belonged: "Why did devotion as a father not deter him?"

There is some tragedy, too, for the people of Illinois, who for the fourth time in recent years have seen one of their ex-governors sentenced to prison. It would be nice if they'd rise up against the culture of corruption in their state, but the campaign finance deck is stacked against them. They can only vote for the politicians the system hands them.

That is the real tragedy: Blagojevich is going away, but the problems linger. Not just in Illinois, but in Missouri and — we'd guess — 48 other states and Washington, D.C.

The kind of stuff he was convicted of — with the notable exception of trying to auction off a U.S. Senate seat — goes on every day. It is called pay-for-play: If you want something from the government, you'd better ante up for the campaign or with a job for a pal.

Blagojevich was more brazen — or stupider — than most politicians. He knew the FBI had tapped his phones in late 2008, yet he still talked deals.

The real tragedy is that there are hundreds of more Blagojeviches out there, shaking the tree with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. The FBI can't keep up with all of them; proving an actual quid-pro-quo is hard, and most pay-to-play comes in shades of gray. The advantage is to the sleazy.

Before being sentenced, Blagojevich addressed the court: "I want to apologize to the people of Illinois, to the court, for the mistakes I have made. I never set out to break the law. I never set out to cross lines."

Baloney. Sometimes the lines are a little fuzzy, but, even in Illinois, people know where the lines are. They trample them with astonishing regularity.

It is a real tragedy that too many politicians accept this and that voters won't rise up to stop it. Take money out of politics, and it will grind to a halt.

Until then, cynicism is proper. That's a tragedy.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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