One assumes that the Almighty brought forth Rod Blagojevich and Bernard Madoff unto the news headlines in one week for a good and noble reason. It is up to us mortals to divine that reason and learn from it.
I don't think that the reason these stories came forth was to bring yuletide cheer — not to mention ratings points and newspaper sales — to a beleaguered news industry, or even distraction and schadenfreude to a recession-depressed nation.
I do not believe the lesson is that "cheaters never prosper." They do, all the time.
What drives the rubbernecking with Blago and Made-off is not the nature or even scale of their alleged crimes. It's the chutzpah. Barack Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope. These characters could write "The Audacity of Hubris." Somewhere in the swamp of vanity and its enablers lurks the lesson.
Politicians — and all humans involved in groups — have been trading favors and scratching each other's backs forever. What made Blago big, appalling news were outsized cojones. The guy has been under investigation for years and surely knew he was being listened to all the time. Yet he explicitly and repeatedly demanded that he receive something of value in return for making an appointment to fill Obama's vacant Senate seat.
The hubris is in the explicitness — the "pro" in quid pro quo was well-articulated and precise. Nothing was left to the imagination. He didn't care whether the feds were listening. And there was no pretending that the beneficiary was the state of Illinois or even the state Democratic Party. It was to be Milorad "Rod" R. Blagojevich.
It is no accident that Blago comes from Illinois, a state with a long record of political corruption. One might say a long and distinguished — even lovable — history of corruption.
Corrupt pols are more fun than clean ones and much more fun than goody-two-shoes reformers. Characters like Paul Powell, Dan Rostenkowski and Ed Vrdolyak have, well, character. As a Chicagoland expat, I confess to a certain perverse pride in our local history of bagmen. Even Blago comes off as more of a comic figure than a threat to society. Which is wrong.
Political corruption does tend to run in old riverbeds — Louisiana, Rhode Island and Illinois. So is it reasonable to ask why some communities tolerate corruption and some don't? Could Blago have been Blago without a fair amount of civic enabling? He was, after all, re-elected in 2006.
As for Bernie Made-off, his hubris was to run a huge, apparently simple Ponzi scheme in broad daylight for so many years. He even sizzled his own son, if early reports prove accurate. Madoff was a Jewish philanthropist who allegedly fleeced Jewish philanthropies. If the charges are true, he bilked sophisticated investors and hedge funds as well as little old ladies. He avoided detection by the authorities despite several attempts to rat him out. He was a financial sociopath, apparently.
But, like Blago, Madoff operated in the big leagues and under the lights. So there was a culture of financial greed and corruption that enabled his financial crime spree to roll along so big for so long. As we well know now, the greed culture went on a bender with the dot-com boom (and bust) and then the financial services boom (and bust). A lot of people had to be greedy and lazy to make Bernie Made-off. A lot of people needed to believe that what sounded too good to be true wasn't too good to be true.
Malcolm Gladwell has people thinking about "outliers," about the combinations of luck, pluck and ability that take extraordinary people to quantum leaps of success and achievement. Madoff and Blago purportedly are outlier crooks, sure. But their alleged crimes are not — not by a long shot.
As audacious as Blagojevich's political gluttony is, it is easy to find far worse political corruption, much of it perfectly legal: Distorting intelligence to invade Iraq, torturing prisoners, failure to regulate Wall Street, and systematic pork-barrel boondoggling come quickly to mind. If you're feeling expansive, how about depriving unemployed and underemployed people of health insurance, rural and poor urban people of decent schools, or veterans of state-of-the-art health care?
As flamboyant as Madoff's alleged cons are, their consequences pale in comparison with the orgy of predatory lending, the flimflam in the mortgage-backed securities markets, the egregious ostentation of executive compensation, the pervasive lack of competent regulation and the unparalleled inequalities of wealth and income of the early years of the 21st century. To name a few econo-scandals.
Many people over the years chose not to turn Blagojevich and Madoff in. I think they call that phenomenon "casting a blind eye." You might cast a blind eye in the workplace at abusive or sleazy colleagues or at your kid's school with bullies, inept teachers or bungling bureaucrats. Collectively, we cast blind eyes toward raunchy and violent entertainment, dysfunctional government and substandard medical care — to pick some almost random examples.
I suspect that intolerance of hubris, exhibitionist vanity, entrenched corruption and gross inequalities, for example, is what makes for "outlier" epochs and "greatest generations."
It would be very cool if we were entering one of those periods.