When Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was caught on tape trying to sell president-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat, commented federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald “The breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering. They allege that Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States senator; involved himself personally in pay-to-play schemes with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target.” Fitzgerald’s description of the soon-to-be-defrocked governor’s despicable actions are as disturbing as they are accurate. But the notion of “pay-to-play” that Blagojevich has been charged with, in which political favors are dispensed by public officials in exchange for compensation, is so common that the line between corrupt and competent politics is often blurred beyond recognition.
When in his final hours as president, Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, many speculated that it was a payoff for the Rich family’s large donations to both the Democratic Party and the Clinton Library. Rich had been indicted for tax evasion and illegally trading with Iran during a time when that country was holding U.S. hostages. How does this differ much from Blagojevich’s attempt to profit from “pay-to-play?”
During the early Bush presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney held secret meetings at the White House to allegedly discuss energy policy. When sued by Judicial Watch under the Freedom of Information Act, the conservative watchdog group revealed that “documents turned over by the Commerce Department contain(ed) a map of Iraqi oilfields, pipelines, refineries and terminals, as well as 2 charts detailing Iraqi oil and gas projects, and ‘Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts.” This meeting happened six months before the 911 tragedy, and not long after, White House officials were already trying to tie Iraq to the terrorist attacks, a position that has since been thoroughly discredited. Many have speculated that the secret gathering was one of many that set the stage for war, and if true – that the Bush administration goaded us into war with Iraq for corporate business contracts and not national security – was this not “pay-to-play” on a grander and even more horrific scale?
These are but two examples of major political figures from both parties whose behind-the-scenes decisions are at least questionable, if not criminal. With Blagojevich, federal prosecutor Fitzgerald was successful in using investigatory spy tactics to uncover gross corruption. Should we expand this method?
In age when the war on terror has given rise to Patriot Acts and warrantless wiretapping as a way to spy on private citizens, we might want to consider turning such tactics around on our government, where public officials wage war on democracy every day. While Americans can keep tabs on their leaders on Capitol Hill via C-Span, imagine taking the camera into the backrooms where the real deals happen? How about White House and Air Force One cameras where every bit of presidential business would be as transparent as many politicians pretend they’d like government to be?
Better yet, why not give private citizens the right to hack into email, wiretap and to follow the financial transactions of public figures? When the PATRIOT Act was introduced by our leaders it was said that those with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear. The same should go for government.
If public figures naturally invite public scrutiny by virtue of their office, I don’t see any good reason we shouldn’t scrutinize these leaders to the nth degree, where even the slightest indiscrepancies could be held up for the public to see. Those who say the PATRIOT Act is an affront to privacy and civil liberties are often dismissed as naïve, not understanding that the War on Terror demands such measures.
Likewise, the ongoing War on Democracy, in which our leaders continuously sell out our representative republic, demands that the same drastic measures be applied. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, if the Blagojevich controversy has taught us anything, it’s to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what your government is doing to your country.” And “pay-to-play” could take on a whole new meaning if in order to play the game of politics; public officials would have to pay by giving up the same liberties they expect us to.