Clout Gate

(Photo: A lack of compassion is never all it’s cracked up to be.)

Clout Gate.  I’m coining the term here and now.  I can’t think of any better reason than clout to explain why an Illinois governor elected on an anti-corruption platform and ending up under long-term federal investigation would think he could get away with disgraceful deeds the likes of which got Rod Blagojevich arrested in his jogging suit by the F.B.I. on Tuesday morning.

Anyone reading this outside of Illinois might take clout as a noun.  They would be mistaken.  In the Central Time Zone, clout is very definitely a verb.  Mike Royko, Chicago’s patron saint of news columnists, said it best back in 1973:

“What clout is in Chicago is political influence, as exercised through patronage, fixing, money, favors, and other traditional…methods.”

Clout is not the payoff.  Clout is putting out your hand to receive the envelope that you have no doubt will shortly be sitting in your palm.

There is no more clouted person in Illinois than its Governor.  For better or worse, even Mayor Daley knows that.  The State Constitution’s lack of a recall mechanism virtually guarantees that whatever antics are undertaken by the occupant of Springfield’s executive office will not generate real political consequences.

Not unless outrage brings clout out into the open.  That rarely happens.  In the history of Illinois, it’s never happened to this extent.

Clout is demanding the head of a children’s hospital make a donation to your re-election fund to free up millions of dollars in state aid.

Clout is shaking down a billionaire to pack the editorial board of a major American newspaper.

Clout is trying to sell the vacated Senate seat of America’s first black President-elect.  (And it’s also not a little bit stupid, considering it was the President-elect, himself, clouting for his preferred candidate.)

And while it may be a great friend to those who have it, it is an enemy of those who don’t.  For clout is a zero-sum game.  For those who swear by it to prosper, the sly-wink, under-the-table, knowing-nod means by which this happens means someone else is going to get screwed. Maybe a lot of people.  Unfairly. Illegally.

Because if clout could work the miracles that it does without causing harm and injustice, it would be out in the open.  There wouldn’t be a shadow market for political favors, much less a carpet-bagging federal prosecutor in long-term Windy City residence.

Clout has been considered natural law in these parts since long before anyone reading these words was born.  It is a myth that clout makes the world go ’round, yet lack of clout can stop your personal world in its tracks.

On its own, it does not make the sun set or the moon rise.  It is not responsible for the tides.  It makes no eternal breezes blow, though it can be responsible for the winds emerging from the mouthpieces of certain politicians.

Clout will not regrow your hair, remove your wrinkles, or reduce your turkey neck.  Nor, contrary to popular belief, will it rescind your erectile dysfunction.

Left unchecked, however, clout will seek to fulfill itself by taking advantage of everything in its path.  Good judgment.  Good government.  Social justice.  Citizenship.

Rolling full speed ahead, clout will trample compassion for your fellow man into the dust, barely breaking a sweat and feeling no remorse in the process.

When completely run amok, clout becomes an enemy to all. This week in Illinois, apparently even to those who have it.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  For clout is one thing more: it is a choice. Clout is neither handed down from God nor taught in school. Instead, it is a deliberate strategy of individuals too fearful of mind to believe in their own ability to succeed, and too cynical of heart to understand that violating another is never done without God–and occasionally Patrick Fitzgerald–watching.

In this, it is a problem of an entire society.  Is it really any wonder that elected leaders, appointed officials, and duly sworn functionaries would come to believe that growing their personal wealth is a function of raping the public weal in a world where most of us cannot say words like love, honesty, and compassion with a straight face?

Clout will remain the scourge of civil society in the Great State of Illinois and elsewhere until we–as an electorate and as a people–realize the miracles we are capable of making happen every day from now until forever by merely standing together instead of tearing each other apart.

And as long as clout remains unchallenged, it will also remain the reason for the sudden waning of Chicago’s equally sudden waxing of credibility on the national stage. Because the coattails of Obama’s hometown media spotlight will stick around long after he’s gone away to Washington.

And maybe long after Blagojevich goes away to prison, too.

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