"Well, it's started," said Al as I entered his coffee shop yesterday.
"What's started?" I asked. "Don't tell me the ocean is starting to cover the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port!"
"No danger there," said Al. "The official word is that the climate has actually been cooling for the last ten years, and the oceans have cooled for the last five. Almost everyone, except for Al Gore and Barak Obama, is talking about global "cooling" for the next several decades."
Al continued - "No, I'm talking about the Obama scandals. They're starting. The first one has hit before he's even been sworn in. The Democratic governor of Illinois has tried to sell Barak Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder."
I knew Al was referring to a news item this week about the FBI arresting Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on charges of trying to enrich himself by "selling" the soon-to-be-vacated seat of Senator (and President-elect) Barak Obama. Under Illinois law, the governor appoints a replacement to complete Mr. Obama's term, which ends in 2010.
Recordings obtained via wiretaps appear to show Mr. Blagojevich expressing a willingness to appoint any of several candidates to the vacant seat in return for either "something tangible" (e.g., money) or a lucrative executive position. He is heard to say that he will "appoint himself" to the seat, if suitable offers are not forthcoming. Mr. Blagojevich maintains that he has done "nothing wrong", but most others - including the Big O - clearly think he's in deep doo-doo.
Al and I batted the scandal around, but he had to admit - based upon the information thus far disclosed - that Mr. Obama did not seem to be directly involved. The FBI has, in fact, made it clear that Mr. Obama is not a party to the case in any known way, except that his senate seat was the one offered for sale. There is some dispute about whether Mr. Obama and Mr. Blagojevich had a personal discussion over who would fill the vacated seat. Al thought the timing of the arrest was a little suspicious for being "premature" - i.e., the trap was sprung before the "bribers" had a chance to make their offers to the governor. An argument can be made that the FBI protected Mr. Obama from any possible ensnarement by blowing the whistle too soon.
I tend to think differently, however. My view is that the arrest had to be made now, or it wouldn't be made at all. After January 20, Mr. Obama will have complete control over all federal law enforcement. The likelihood that any other cases affecting him - even by association - will be prosecuted during his term seems extremely small. Thus, I argued with Al that this would not be the "first" Obama scandal, but would probably be the last one the public will hear about, in a law-enforcement context, during Mr. Obama's term.
My crystal ball was defective, so I hocked it some time ago. Nevertheless, I venture to make a small prediction. As soon as he is sworn in, Mr. Obama will fire all 93 federal attorneys, just as Bill Clinton did in 1993. This will eliminate all continuity for pursuing corruption cases that might affect the president, or his close staff, or important Democratic congressmen. As a lawyer, Mr. Obama understands the power of the law and how an inconveniently timed prosecution can damage a presidency. Except for tactically chosen cases brought against GOP figures, the corruption-case hatch will be closed after January 20, 2009.
Mr. Obama might drop the whole attorney-firing bomb at once, like Mr. Clinton did. Or he might drop a series of individual bombs over time, after "reviewing" the investigations being pursued by each attorney. My best estimate, though, is that he will call for the immediate resignations of all, rather than encourage media speculation by retaining some and firing others. This was Mr. Bush's mistake, when he fired 8 federal attorneys in 2006. The media immediately jumped on the selective firings as prima facie evidence of a political motive or some kind of cover-up.
Mr. Obama will be too smart for that. He will clean house, taking care to bury all corruption cases that represent any risk to him. There must surely be some. For the most part, ethics rules will prevent fired federal attorneys from disclosing details. I believe Mr. Obama's knowledge of the way the legal world works will give him a confidence in these matters that Mr. Bush lacked.
"But this is intolerable," said Al, as he stomped around behind the counter. "Under these conditions, how can anything be brought to light?"
I pointed out to Al that the customary watchdog of governmental integrity is investigative journalism. Journalists speak "truth to power" from the security of their special niche as guardians of the public trust. Reporters can shine sunlight upon matters an administration would prefer to keep wrapped in darkness. But Al was unimpressed with these assurances.
"After the Mainstream Media's performance during the 2008 presidential campaign, who could believe that they would ever investigate anything damaging that might involve Mr. Obama?" asked Al. "The guy has had complete immunity conferred on him by the media."
Al has a point, of course, as major media organs are now issuing mea culpas for their excessive bias toward Mr. Obama during the campaign. Unfortunately, with the election over, these admissions are of little use, except to cover Big Media rear ends. We have no assurance that the future will look different. The whole world - excepting a small coterie of east- or west-coast liberals - can see that all pretense of media-objectivity is gone. Some commentators, like Cal Thomas, think the American media might never recover from 2008.
The "wild card" in the deck, however, is that primary quest of all journalists - the eternal media question: Where's the conflict? During the campaign, the answer to that question lay in the historic run for the White House by our first viable candidate of African ancestry. This was the conflict of all conflicts. No story could be better. Nothing could crowd it out - not even disclosures that Barak Obama belonged to a racist church and was hanging out with a guy who blew up government buildings in the 1960s.
With Mr. Obama's election, however, that original conflict has run its course. Other conflicts will soon elbow their way into the reportorial consciousness. If a whiff of scandal arises within the Obama circle, the conflict represented by it will be irresistible to many news organs.
One imagines that Mr. Obama will be disappointed to find that his "protective armor" - generously furnished by the Mainstream Media during the campaign - is now gone. Reporters he thought were his friends will ruthlessly pursue damaging stories they ignored before the election. Mr. Obama's ability to control prosecution of inconvenient cases will not extend to the media. He will find - as many presidents before him have found - that reporters are fickle friends. In this respect, the Last Scandal might be a story like the Last Convertible - not quite.