Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It’s Time for Their Close-Up

The following was published in today’s Chicago Sun Times:

BY DAVE MCKINNEY Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief
Gov. Blagojevich refused Tuesday to explain his hiring of a convicted felon who did federal prison time for not cooperating in a terrorism probe.

When asked if he could explain his thoughts behind hiring Steven Guerra as a deputy chief of staff, knowing he was a felon, the governor said simply, "No."

With that one-word response, Blagojevich abruptly ended a rare Springfield news conference, retreating into his Statehouse office.

Setting aside the issue of whether it makes good sense, politically or otherwise, to place a convicted felon in a relatively high state government position, the scene described above illustrates perfectly how elected leaders don’t feel any accountability to the public for their actions. Fortunately, I have a solution.

First, let’s break down what unfolded here.

The governor made a “rare Springfield news conference.” That in itself is a major problem because in our storied political system, the media acts not only as the eyes and ears of the public, but also provides its voice. The media’s ability to carry out their mission as the fourth estate of government is greatly diminished when a leader refuses to hear and respond to the issues that the public wants addressed.

And then, on this rare occasion when the governor does respect the duty that the media performs on behalf of his constituents, the often-glib guv goes monosyllabic.

Yes, he’s curt denial speaks volumes, but it raises more questions than it answers. If the governor truly believed that his man Guerra is worthy both of redemption and his position as deputy chief of staff, then he could have just said as much and then carried on with the news conference. The fact that he turned tail at the first sign of reproach, however mildly it was expressed and however expected it should have been, makes me believe that he feared that much more prickly questions would follow.

The governor and elected leaders are called on to make many tough decisions. Perhaps they would be wiser in determining what should influence those decisions if they knew, without a doubt, that they would have to explain it all someday.

So I propose that an additional requirement be added to the job description of our elected leaders. Four times a year, they must sit down with a panel of journalists and political scholars and answer their questions. The event will air on television and radio, and maybe somebody could do one of those podcast things. The panel will be allowed to ask follow-up questions if they aren’t satisfied with the original response and will be permitted to say some FCC-approved variation of ‘bull crap’ should an answer be blatantly evasive.

This won’t be a typical news conference where the leader can call on most-favored reporters, give sleight-of-hand responses and then call for the next question, or bail out when the first bead of sweat appears on his upper lip. Nor will it be an interrogation. The degree in which it will resemble a grilling will be determined by how transparent and upright the leader’s administration had been operating in the months prior to the day of reckoning.

The whole purpose of this exercise in accountability is to move the workings of government from the back room into our living rooms. The more we can see what’s going on, the less shifty they’ll be tempted to be.

Perhaps the thing that vexes me most about Illinois’ current state budget situation is how the leaders play their power games, carry out their vendettas, and shoot proverbial spit balls at each other, and then fire off a news release or trot out a spokesperson to claim that what they are doing is noble and in the best interest of the public. Even though the media does a good job of cutting through the spin, politicians, by avoiding any direct interaction with the media, can continue with the charade and still look themselves in the mirror each morning. If they’re forced to meet the press, their image might take a beating at first, but in the long run they’ll learn that keeping the public’s interests at heart is the key to effective leadership.


5 comments:

UMRBlog said...

Let me say the same thing a slightly different way. Our Governor chooses never to ENGAGE contrary views, the press or the public on issues. He makes pronouncements and retreats.

I happen to think he has good intentions but he kind of reminds me of the golf pro who was too shy to actually give lessons. Really couldn't help too many people.

Interesting overview. Good luck on the Pulitzer thang.

Sandy Duncan's Other Eye said...

My opinion? Thanks for asking.

As far as changing the status quo in regard to how our government is run and how our politicians behave I have the following theory.

Politicians know their weaknesses and their strengths and as such do a wonderful job of making their jobs easier and keeping themselves out of trouble. Case in point: When it comes to legislating, our lawmakers pass laws and amendments that they know cannot hurt them or at least have a very small chance of doing so. Take DUI laws for example. Because our legislators are very cognizant that they, or their close family members, could very easily be snared in a DUI arrest situation they have created more loopholes in DUI law than you could shake a crochet hook at. Getting arrested for DUI is easy. Getting convicted of DUI by a jury with a decent lawyer on your side is very hard. For an offense that kills and seriously injures the vast numbers that it does every year you would think that our lawmakers would take away some of the legal hoops the entire criminal justice system must jump through in order to help limit the devastation.

Another example is the sale or possession of cocaine. Sale crack and you are going to do some jail time. Sale powder and probation is at least on the table and is very likely on a first offense. Why the differing punishments? Because our lawmakers can easily see theirselves, or their children that they have ignored their whole lives, in possession of powder cocaine but not crack. For the most part crack is for the poor, powder is for the rich....our lawmakers know this.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Tony,

I agree with your assessment of his style, but I’m skeptical that his intentions are noble. If he were truly committed to providing healthcare to all, he would have worked harder early in the budget cycle to build broad support for it among the legistature and lobbying bodies. Unfortunately, for him, building a coalition means that if he was successful, he would have had to share the spotlight with the others who worked to bring it about. Instead he took a maverick approach meant to assure that he alone could take credit for it. And, of course, he failed.

Sandy,

Wouldn’t you like to hear an elected leader answer to your charges? Make them defend, on the record, the existence of these loopholes and inconsistencies, and if they can’t or agree that they are unfair, make them commit to changing them. The key is not allowing them to get away with a canned response meant to absolve themselves of any responsibility. That’s why a thorough probing every four months would work to flush out the system.

Thanks for commenting,
Dan

Anonymous said...

I wish I was convinced your plan would do much good. When I look at the way the national media failed to challenge or question George Bush before the Iraq war, and the cozy relationship the local press has with some of our elected officials, I have to conclude that the press often fails to do its job.
At the local and national level they often fail to ask hard questions and/or fail to report it when others do. Investigative journalism is dead.

Sandy D. said...

That should have been "sell" cocaine not "sale." Sorry, I knew that didn't look right when I wrote it.

Anonymous 12:44 has a good point. Journalism has gone from attempting to inform the public to attempting to entertain the public. We went from Edward R. Murrow to Geraldo Rivera.