by Dana Heupel
For our wedding anniversary recently, my wife gave me a gift to hang in my office. Created by Springfield artist Jim Edwards, it is an accordion-like combination of two images. Viewed from the left side, you see Abraham Lincoln; from the right, Barack Obama.
The framed artwork is titled The Boys from Illinois, and I like it a lot. I don’t search for too many deep meanings. Its relevance to me lies simply in the fact that these two Illinoisans are inextricably linked this year, when we observed the 200th birthday of one; the inauguration of the other. And, of course, through Lincoln’s role in ending slavery and Obama’s election as the nation’s first African-American president.
For me, there’s also a personal coincidence: I received the gift on March 31; two days later, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted by federal prosecutors. Since then, Mr. Edwards’ construction has served as a daily reminder that although Illinoisans have much to be ashamed of when it comes to disgraced politicians — with names like Blagojevich and Ryan and Walker and Kerner and Rostenkowski and Reynolds and Powell and Hodge and many others — we also have elected many officials we can be proud of.
And not just Lincoln and Obama; many others have had notable careers. While it’s impossible to understand why one politician veers away from public service and another stays the course, perhaps we can learn something from statements by those who served honorably, reflecting on how government officials should conduct themselves.
Lincoln once said: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.” In a letter to a friend, he wrote: “I believe it is an established maxim in morals that he who makes an assertion without knowing whether it is true or false, is guilty of falsehood; and the accidental truth of the assertion, does not justify or excuse him.”
In imposing new ethics rules earlier this year, Obama told his staff, “Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” Though time will be the ultimate arbiter of how well he holds to those principles, at least our new president started off on the right path.
Many other prominent and well-respected Illinois elected officials also have weighed in on government service. The late U.S. Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, for instance, is widely recognized as a model for ethical conduct.
In a 1998 article for Christian Ethics Today on campaign contributions — the lust for which has been the downfall of so many Illinois politicians — Simon wrote, “Over and over on the Senate floor, I see the process that should be serving the public being twisted to serve those who contribute to our campaigns.” And in a declaration in a 2002 federal court case where another senator and others sought to declare the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law unconstitutional, Simon opposed the plaintiffs and supported the restrictions by honestly summing up the problem:
“While I realize some argue donors don’t buy favors, they buy access,” he stated. “That access is the abuse, and it affects all of us. If I got to a Chicago hotel at midnight, when I was in the Senate, and there were 20 phone calls waiting for me, 19 of them names I didn’t recognize and the 20th someone I recognized as a $1,000 donor to my campaign, that is the one person I would call. You feel a sense of gratitude for their support.”
Former Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for president, might as well have been referring to Illinois’ current sad ethical situation when he said in a 1952 campaign speech in Los Angeles, “Public confidence in the integrity of the government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for.”
On the Republican side, former Sen. Everett Dirksen is perhaps best-known for something he probably never said: “A billion here, a billion there, sooner or later it adds up to real money.” But that quote, wherever it came from, might apply to Illinois’ current fiscal problems, which many believe were caused at least partially by excessive spending. And an actual statement of Dirksen’s may well be an antidote to modern-day over-the-top partisanship: “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”
Former U.S. Rep. John Anderson, a Republican from Rockford who ran as an independent for president in 1980, also might as well have been addressing state government’s current fiscal dilemma when he remarked about Ronald Reagan’s plan to cut taxes, balance the federal budget and increase military spending. “The only way you can do that,” Anderson said, “is with mirrors.”
Reagan, of course, was a native Illinoisan, although his political roots took hold in California. His reported take on corrupt officials: “Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
It’s probably risky to judge politicians by their words — witness Blagojevich’s promises to reform and renew Illinois government after the Ryan scandal. But the point is that despite FBI special agent Robert Grant’s statement about Illinois after Blagojevich was arrested — “If it is not the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor” — we also have a long history of prominent politicians from both political parties whose careers were distinguished, not disgraced. And it’s worth remembering that the list of those whose public service was honorable — which also contains names such as Bryan and Douglas and Percy and Michel and many, many others — is actually much longer than the other.
For more information about The Boys from Illinois, contact artist Jim Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dana Heupel can be reached at email@example.com.
Illinois Issues, May 2009