WASHINGTON — In handling questions about the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder — Obama has gone strictly by the book. His statements have been cautious and precise, careful not to get ahead of the facts or make declarations that might later have to be retracted.
For most politicians, that would be good enough. For Obama, who inspired the nation with a promise of "change we can believe in," it's not.
The scandal involves Obama only in the most tangential way, as far as anyone knows, and actually seems to cast him in a favorable light. But the longer he leaves obvious questions unanswered, the longer the president-elect will have to talk about the seamier side of Illinois politics rather than initiatives such as saving the U.S. auto industry or revamping health care.
The FBI affidavit underlying the criminal complaint against Blagojevich reads like the amateurish script of a movie about a tough-guy politician on the make. According to the affidavit, court-ordered wiretaps overheard Blagojevich and his associates concocting various schemes to profit from his authority, as governor, to appoint someone to fill the Senate seat that Obama has vacated. At one point, Blagojevich is quoted as telling an adviser: "I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden, and, uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I'm not gonna do it." If he can't get what he wants from leveraging the Senate seat, Blagojevich says, he might just appoint himself.
What he wants, according to the affidavit, is to make his family financially secure by obtaining a job for his wife or for himself after leaving office. The governor was also aware that he was already under federal investigation for alleged corruption, although this knowledge doesn't seem to have induced an iota of discretion. The affidavit quotes Blagojevich as listing three criteria for picking Obama's successor: "our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation." So much for details such as the candidates' qualifications.
He delivers an expletive-laden tirade against Obama, according to the court papers, because he believes Obama wants him to give the job to a specific candidate "for nothing." This actually makes the president-elect and his team look good — but also raises a host of questions that need to be answered.
Obama has denied speaking to Blagojevich about the Senate seat. But Obama's initial statement seemed crafted to avoid the question of whether his aides had been in touch with the governor's office. On Thursday, at a news conference, he said he was certain his people "had no involvement with any dealmaking," and added that his staff was still "gathering facts" about possible contacts
But all this seems awfully coy. It's obvious that the president-elect would have an interest in who was appointed to the Senate from his home state — for good reason. For that matter, it would be unusual if the president-elect didn't have a preferred candidate. The normal thing would be for Obama's staff to talk to Blagojevich's staff — and, unless prosecutors have asked him not to, I don't understand why Obama hasn't stated this simple fact.
Blagojevich thought, according to the affidavit, that Obama wanted the Senate seat to go to someone identified only as "Senate Candidate 1" — believed to be Valerie Jarrett, a prominent Chicago businesswoman who is one of Obama's closest supporters. On the evening of Nov. 10, Democratic sources abruptly cut off speculation about Jarrett and the Senate seat by leaking word that she would become a White House adviser.
That happens to be the same day that the FBI overheard Blagojevich, in a two-hour conference call with his wife and advisers in Illinois and Washington, talking in detail about the various candidates and what he wanted in return from appointing any of them. That raises the question of what the Obama team knew about the investigation and when.
Other portions of the affidavit are full of references to Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Chicago wheeler-dealer who was convicted of fraud earlier this year. Rezko was an early supporter of Obama; the relationship has already been thoroughly examined, but I can't imagine that Obama wants to have to talk about it again.
None of this is likely to hurt Obama in any material way or even dim the glow of his victory and upcoming inauguration. But maybe it can be a lesson. Real "change" would be throwing away the playbook and getting all the facts out now, rather than later.
Eugene Robinson's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.