Oh, Rod. Not so long ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich seemed so honorable. After all, he ran on a campaign of reform, aiming to appear as a shining beacon of light after George Ryan’s corrupt governorship. Then the phone calls went public. Those f***ing phone calls whose transcripts littered the papers for a while, the ones that had him saying things a governor was probably not supposed to say. He allegedly wanted cash or a better job for himself (maybe a little something for the wife too) for a senatorial position he was supposed to be filling as a gubernatorial duty. Now the public basically wants him out.
Blagojevich joins a long line of crooked Illinois politicians, including three governors from the last 35 years that went to jail. Two of those three were Northwestern alums. Tack on Blagojevich and Northwestern has a pretty bad track record. Why do our alums play dirty? Perhaps it’s just a result of location; after all, graduating politicians immediately enter a state famous for its corruption. Or is Northwestern doing something wrong?
The first Wildcat governor was Otto Kerner, who graduated from Northwestern’s law school in 1934. He served from 1961 until 1968, but left in disgrace after racking up $268,000 in profit from doing political favors for racetrack owners, then lying to a grand jury about it. Before his crime, Kerner was a Boy Scout leader and a champion of race relations, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Kerner Commission investigated the race riots of 1967 and ultimately found that eliminating de facto segregation was the way to decrease urban violence. When he worked as a district attorney and as a judge, he was an advocate for reform of adoption laws. Only after those shiny resumé fillers did he get caught doing shady political deals.
Next, we have Daniel Walker, a 1950 graduate of Northwestern Law School who served as governor from 1973 to 1977. After his governorship, he went to prison for borrowing money from a contractor who was borrowing money from Walker’s own Savings and Loan.
At school, Walker was a model student, taking summer classes to graduate in two and a half years while managing the duties of editor-in-chief of the Northwestern Law Review and co-editor of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Walker, like Kerner, headed up a commission to study an incident of urban violence and found results that opposed Mayor Richard Daley, Sr. Walker battled the Daley Democratic machine, saying that Daley thought reform was a bad word. To gain recognition in his campaign for governor, Walker walked across Illinois and won without the support of the Democratic machine. However, after his term, he slipped “into a life of leisure and indulgence,” according to a North County Times article, and that’s when his money problems snowballed into jail time.
Finally, there’s good ol’ Blagojevich. He transferred to Northwestern as an undergraduate his junior year. He kept to himself for the most part. He didn’t join a frat, lived in Chicago both years and wasn’t even in the yearbook. But he didn’t care. According to a Time article, he had a “me against the world” mentality — a lot like his idol, Richard Nixon, whom he defended on countless occasions during the Watergate scandal. During his gubernatorial race, he ran on a campaign of reform. George Ryan had just been convicted on corruption charges, and Blagojevich looked to be on the opposite side of the spectrum. Now, he’s on the verge of being kicked out of office.
Let’s review. Step 1: Go to Northwestern. Step 2: Campaign for Illinois governor on a platform of reform. Step 3: Give and receive shady political favors. Step 4: Get caught.
Step 2 and Step 3 seem paradoxical, and Step 1 is a little disheartening. How did these men get from one to the other?
While Walker did not actually commit a crime while in office, Kerner and Blagojevich allegedly did. And it was all about doing favors. History Associate Professor Henry Binford, who specializes in U.S. cultural history, says that’s just the way Illinois and Chicago politics is and has been for many years.
“The way state government and city government in Chicago have evolved, [there’s] a strong emphasis on ties of personal loyalty so that people do favors for each other, including various kinds of material exchange,” Binford says.
So Chicago politics is corrupt. Big surprise, right? But both Kerner and Blagojevich were exposed to that culture at an early age. That leads us to Step 5: Adamantly insist that you are innocent despite clear evidence otherwise.
Blagojevich still does not think he has done anything wrong, and neither did Kerner. Walker pleaded guilty in expectation of probation, writing in his autobiography that he knew what he did “was against regulations, but, like most businessmen, I saw a huge difference between a law and a regulation.” Kerner insisted on innocence until his dying day, and like Blagojevich, he believed the prosecution had a political nature, that those against him planned it.
Psychology Assistant Professor Joan Chiao calls the lack of guilt the politicians’ “self-serving bias,” or the way people construe situations to favor themselves.
“[The politician] can think about it as something he’s done wrong and feel responsible and guilty for that, or he can blame the situation and absolve any positive role in the negative event,” Chiao says.
Plus, in Blagojevich’s case, his isolationist tendencies could have contributed to “unreasonable expectations” about his abilities and the “appropriate use of power in a given situation,” as Chiao says. Blagojevich, notorious for keeping to himself, essentially did the same thing while at Northwestern. He lived a 40-minute drive from campus his junior year and a 30-minute drive his senior year. The same Time article said that “several acquaintances and people who graduated the same year as [Blagojevich] were even surprised to find out later that they’d been in the same class.” Chances are Blagojevich did not hit up The Keg on Monday nights, and according to Chiao, that antisocial attitude could have contributed to his current feelings of guiltlessness.
According to Binford, many people who are prominent in state or city politics went to Northwestern as undergraduates or for law school. The mere fact that Northwestern is in Illinois means graduates entering state politics will end up in Illinois’s culture of corruption. For example, 1952 law school graduate Harold Washington was mayor of Chicago from 1983 to 1987 after serving in both the Illinois State Legislature and Congress. He served 40 days in the Cook County Jail and three years of probation for evading tax payments.
However, not all of the graduates we send into the political sphere have become criminals. Our other gubernatorial graduate, Adlai Stevenson, served from 1949 to 1953 and managed to not illegally sell senator seats or lie to grand juries while in office. Northwestern also graduated Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s new Chief of Staff; Dick Gephardt, a retired Congressman and frequent potential running mate; and George McGovern, a retired senator who fought against poverty and political instability with food security. Thus far, they have been politically clean and widely respected.
All in all, the fact that these three crooked governors attended Northwestern probably does not say anything about what the university teaches about leadership. According to Binford, it’s likely that their greatest commonality is that they “ran afoul of federal prosecutors who have an interest in exposing them.”
Binford does not think the corrupt culture of Illinois politics will ever completely die out. Too many people benefit from the system. Although clean politics seems like an impossible goal, Binford does think that the shady practices have diminished.
“The reaction to Blagojevich is more powerful and more widespread than previous episodes of corruption of similar nature,” he says. “It reflects a change in climate. He’s playing by old rules in an era when the rules have at least changed in some extent.”