Barack Obama on Thursday delivered a primer for the nation on the strange and often sordid universe of Illinois politics as the president-elect promised full disclosure--soon--of any contact between his aides and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration over a new U.S. Senate pick.
Two days after Blagojevich was arrested and charged with trying to sell Obama's former seat, the incoming president weighed in with his first detailed comments about a distracting home front scandal.
Obama said he had not been contacted by federal authorities, had never spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate vacancy and was "confident that no representatives" of his had engaged in dealmaking about the seat with the governor or his team.
"I was appalled and disappointed by what we heard in those transcripts," Obama said in reference to fragments of undercover surveillance recordings of Blagojevich unveiled in the charges.
"Here in Illinois--as is true, I think, across the country--there is a tradition of public service, where people are getting in it for the right reasons and to serve. But there's also a tradition where people view politics as a business."
Scandal questions dominated an Obama news conference in Chicago at which the topic was to be health-care reform.Notably absent from the event was Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff designee, who has been watching from off to the side on most occasions when Obama has met the media in recent weeks.
Emanuel, who holds the same U.S. House seat that once belonged to Blagojevich, has long ties to the governor, and reporters have been clamoring without success to quiz him about any conversations he might have had recently with Blagojevich or his advisers.
The congressman surfaced briefly with two of his children at a school musical performance inside Chicago's City Hall. He declined to answer questions about Blagojevich and the Senate seat, saying he didn't want his job to intrude on a family event.
"There's a wall," Emanuel said. "I'm a father. I'm chief of staff. I'm not going to combine the two for you."
The charges quoted Blagojevich and aides as hatching schemes to swap the Senate appointment for an array of jobs in and out of government, as well as campaign cash.
One alleged shakedown plan involved a special election to fill Emanuel's seat. The charges said Blagojevich and others talked of an unnamed "president-elect adviser" concerned about the election who might help the governor land a new post at a non-profit.
The charges indicated Blagojevich grew furious because he felt Obama and his team wouldn't play along with his schemes.
At his appearance, Obama said he had no idea how Blagojevich got such ideas.
"I can't presume to know what was in the mind of the governor during this process, so I won't even speculate on that," Obama said. "All I can do is read what was in the transcripts . . . and shake my head."
Obama promised to release within days information on contacts his advisers and staff have had with the governor's office. Key figures on Obama's staff have been unwilling to speak with reporters about the contacts since news of Blagojevich's arrest.
The president-elect said his aides were trying "to gather the facts of any contacts with the governor's office about this vacant seat so that we can share them with you over the next few days."
In defending himself and other politicians in the state, Obama reached back in time.
"There are extraordinary traditions of public service coming out of Illinois, even after Abraham Lincoln," he said.
The alleged misdeeds of Blagojevich may be extraordinary, Obama said, but he argued that Illinois holds no trademark on crass politics.
"We know in Washington that lobbyists have disproportionate influence," he said. "We know that in statehouses and city councils all across America there are times where people are not thinking about what's best for the public good."
Those who know Illinois politics say Obama's ability to craft a reform image while co-existing with some crusty Illinois political types is a skill any effective politician in the state must master.
Mike Lawrence, former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said even good-government types have learned they must compartmentalize relationships with politicians who have reputations as ethically challenged.
Lawrence pointed to the example of Simon, the former U.S. senator and the institute's namesake, who once found himself campaigning on the same statewide ticket with Paul Powell, a former Illinois secretary of state who had frequent brushes with scandal.
"They managed to form a type of mutual respect for their ability to campaign hard," Lawrence explained. "If Paul Simon had been relying only on the pure of heart, he wouldn't have gotten the votes to get things passed. You don't have to approve of a person's ethics to work with them on a matter of common cause."
Tribune reporters Hal Dardick and Susan Kuczka contributed to this report.
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