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A Grand Ol’ American Tradition: Corrupt Politics in the Past, Present, and Unfortunately the Future

Rod Blagojevich sitting in his prison cell- by R.J. Matson
Rod Blagojevich sitting in his prison cell- by R.J. Matson

On December 10, 2008, Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested and convicted for attempting to sell multiple political offices, including the one previously occupied by Barack Obama. As great of a head of hair he has, apparently there isn’t much head underneath it all. Selling jobs to the highest bidder has been around since the 19th century, and especially apparent in 1930’s New Deals congress. R.J. Matson’s political cartoon above shows how corrupt men like Blagojevich can still be politically involved after negative exposure, suggesting corruption will always be a part of American Politics. Blagojevich isn’t the only one, however, in current politics to try and make easy money; Many Supreme Court cases, individuals, and entire administrations demonstrate the clear and present danger today as it was back in the 1930’s.

Blagojevich’s arrest is nothing new in Illinois politics. Thanks to an all too revealing affidavit and secret recordings in his office, Blagojevich and John Harris, his chief of staff, were charged with, “…conspiracy to commit wire fraud and solicitation to commit bribery…” (Coen 1). Blagojevich really took after his predecessor, Governor George Ryan, who in 2002, highly suspected of being the leader of a racketeering ring in his administration (Rosenberg). No wonder Illinois is widely known as a hotbed for buying and selling civil service. We can trace corruption in Illinois to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, a man of very strict beliefs, strict policies, and strict bribery (Rosenberg).  Corruption even goes FURTHER at the federal level, Jack Abramoff made a huge mess out of the Bush administration in 2006 with his lobbying tactics: often employing bribing officials, fake wire transfers to scam, and a little bit of contract killing (Rosenberg). Don’t forget corruption in FDR’s New Deals, because in 1930’s congress, representatives were caught in the actions of selling state jobs to various organizations (Dallas Morning News 18). This list of historical no-no’s could go on, but a precedence forms, a never ending cycle if you will. So this begs the question: will political corruption remain in american politics, now and forever? Those people who fought against big government corruption in the 1930s, such as Cartoonist John Knott and The Dallas Morning News, will their efforts be in vain? According to all this information, the future may be bleak.

Matson’s cartoon explores the previously explained unfortunate future in politics. Here there’s a very amusing depiction of Rod Blagojevich. Sitting in his prison cell, Rod happily looks across from a poster titled, “Rod Blagojevich 2026,” which is fortunately the year he is released from prison. So what’s hilarious is that this man clearly thinks he can run again for office, but as a society we know he isn’t going to re-elected; convicted felons are mostly frowned upon, especially those that are convicted of fraud and political corruption! There is something, however that is more unsettling about the cartoon, unsettling since it could be true. Is Blagojevich smiling because he’s naive and thinks he still has a shot of the big leagues, or because he knows that his conviction doesn’t change anything? If political machines have been running around politics for a hundred years, what’s to say they’ll stop? When it comes to combatting the current state of politics, “Faith in the judicial system itself can be undermined by corruption” (Handlin). This scary revelation amidst something originally intended as humorous scares many forward thinkers in todays political climate. If the past couldn’t fix its wrongs, what’s to say we can?

Blagojevich was just the tip of the iceberg. Examination of political corruption isn’t just a new issue, but has been rampant in 20th century government, such as FDR’s congress, and Mayor Daley. Political Cartoonist such as R.J. Matson and John Knott of the Dallas Morning News become freedom fighters of these issues, but no matter how much work they put in, no change will come about. The only hope is push this knowledge to the masses, if there is any hope at all.

Bibliography

Coen, Jeff, Rick Pearson, John Chase, and David Kidwell. “ROD BLAGOJEVICH: Gov. Rod Blagojevich Arrested, Charged, Released.” Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. Chicago Tribune, 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Dallas Morning News, ed. “Civil Service Needed.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 3 Nov. 1933: 18. America’s Newspapers [NewsBank]. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Handlin, Amy. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 588 U.S. 1 (2010).” Dirty Deals?: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence, and Corruption Ed. Amy Handlin. Vol. 2: Articles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014. 394-395. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Handlin, Amy. “The Roots of Corruption.” Dirty Deals?: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence, and Corruption Ed. Amy Handlin. Vol. 1: Essays. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014. [273]-291. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Handlin, Amy. “The Corruption Tax.” Dirty Deals?: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence, and Corruption Ed. Amy Handlin. Vol. 1: Essays. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014. [292]-300. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Homel, Michael W. “Daley, Richard J.” Encyclopedia of American Urban History. Ed. David Goldfield. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference, 2007. 203-204. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Matson, R.J. “Blagojevich 2026-COLOR.” Cagle Cartoons. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Rosenberg, Stuart. “Abramoff, Jack (1958– ).” Dirty Deals?: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence, and Corruption Ed. Amy Handlin. Vol. 2: Articles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014. 337-338. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Rosenberg, Stuart. “Blagojevich, Rod (1956– ).” Dirty Deals?: An Encyclopedia of Lobbying, Political Influence, and Corruption Ed. Amy Handlin. Vol. 2: Articles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2014. 368-370. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Caveat Emptor: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Political Corruption

Two men waiting in line for a handout from a government official while behind a fence around the Capitol
Two men waiting in line for a handout from a government official while behind a fence around the Capitol.

Economic turmoil created heavy doubt in civil servants in 1930’s Dallas. Political scandals didn’t help the federal government’s case when trying to win over the good hearted people of Dallas, Texas. The Dallas Morning News’ 1933 editorial “Civil Service Needed” is an outcry against the job buying problem in political machines. Knott’s political cartoon, “Caveat Emptor,” perfectly captures political bosses ripping off Congressmen in a back alley deal. Knott’s humorous insight and the Dallas Morning News sheds light on corruption at the federal level.There are many factors that prelude to the punchline in Knott’s cartoon. Political machines created problems long before 1933, such as the Tweed Ring of the late 19th century (Kennedy 473). Progressive legislation from the Theodore Roosevelt Administration simmered down political machines (Jackson); however, with FDR’s New Deals creating about three million empty jobs at the state and local levels (Kelber), the system began to pick up some more momentum. Traditionally with this form of corruption, people at the lower rung of the machine would give funds and votes to a certain candidate. A newly elected and corrupted official would then rig legislation to give jobs and contracts to contributors to his campaign, cutting out the poor souls who believed in hard work over money. Now with such a large increase in government owned jobs in Depression era America, who was to determine the allocations of these jobs? Enter newly surcharged political machines, ready to give out jobs to the highest bidder.

The good folks of Dallas, Texas weren’t so keen on government handouts made by the political machines. An November 3rd 1933 editorial in the Dallas Morning News titled, “Civil Service Needed” strongly urges, “the wider need of civil service in state employment” The editorial serves as a response to new revelations of campaign solicitation within the Treasury Department (Dallas Morning News 18), which slides perfectly into the definition of political machines. According to the Editorial, corruption can’t be eliminated until change has been brought at the highest level, a burning need for legislation that penalizes political machines higher and higher. It’s also pretty safe to say the, “evil revelation” of job buying is also shared by the mass majority of Americans, a time where nobody found new jobs in a broken economy.

Knott’s cartoon repeats this message against job solicitation, but allows the audience to laugh at the powerful individuals involved. The young man with his hand in his deep pocket portrays congress. His happy-go-lucky face clearly describes he has no idea what is going on. His counterpart to his left has a better idea of a bigger picture. The cigar, large gut, and authoritative demeanor of the man to the left makes him literally large-and-in-charge in the transaction. Cigar man can easily be related to the political bosses who ran the machines, holding a parchment titled state jobs. He’s not the only boss, the next guy behind him is expecting the same treatment and handout from congress on the right. The fence in the background makes the action in the foreground very wrong, like some back alley drug deal. So clearly Knott is saying political machines are shady, and this process is happening again and again. What’s humorous comes from the relationship between the two parties. In a political machine, the representative is meant to be seen as the guy in charge, as he is the one giving the jobs to the highest bidder. Though the other guys look more aware of what’s going on, after all, “the job buyer is no less guilty of political corruption than the job seller” (Dallas Morning News 18). Very much akin to the image of the communist spy in the war room in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; two parties who think they have the upper hand, but in the end are still the loser. Knott flips that around because the bosses are ripping off the corrupt congress, instead of politicians apparently selling to the highest bidder.

Can there be any benefits to job distribution? Or does Knott’s cartoon serve as the ultimate warning to corrupt politicians? The cartoon title, “Caveat Emptor” translates from Latin to “Let the buyer’s beware” Although, the machines weren’t so wary against they’re actions, they believed corruption was in the right. The political machines did manage to benefit those who were a part of it, and they were the only way to, “ultimately provide stable and reliable government,” in an already corrupt system (Ehrenhalt). Take Mayor Daley’s Chicago in the 1950s, where his political machine built many jobs in and around the city (Ehrenhalt). So to some Americans, and I guess some politicians, in order to move forward as a nation, jobs must be bought, and loyalty must be seized, and men must appear with big guts and cigars behind fences. There are definitely men such as Mayor Daley who oppose Knott’s opinions, saying he’s just Knott funny. According to machine supporters, if you corrupt an already corrupt system, then two wrongs can make a right.

Political Machines bought and sold jobs like hot commodities during the Great Depression. The desperate American people and general apathetic feelings toward government allowed corruption to spread. Nevertheless, the people at the Dallas Morning News weren’t afraid to show their true colors. Knott’s cartoon made politicians look like the fools that they are, creating humor in an otherwise dark subject.  The impact of the article at the time may have been small, but in today’s world of information, the archives help show how Americans thought in 1930s Texas. Knott was a forefather in political satire, a sign of not only more mistakes made by politicians, but great satirists such as Stanley Kubrick. Both the editorial and Knott’s cartoon make America’s voice heard in an otherwise silenced nation, crying against any form of political corruption, and making fun of those who do.

Sources:

Dallas Morning News, ed. “Civil Service Needed.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 3 Nov. 1933: 18. America’s Newspapers [NewsBank]. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Ehrenhalt, Alan. “Why Political Machines Were Good for Government.” Why Political Machines Were Good for Government. Governing, July 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2015. <http://www.governing.com/columns/assessments/gov-political-machines-positives.html>.

Kelber, Harry. “How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression.” How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs To Lift the American People from Depression. The Labor Educator, 9 May 2008. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <http://www.laboreducator.org/newdeal2.htm>.

Jackson, Bill. “Political Machines.” Political Machines. The Social Studies Help Center, 2015. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Kennedy, Robert C. “Nast, Thomas (1840–1902).” Encyclopedia of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Ed. John D. Buenker and Joseph Buenker. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. 473-474. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.