An enduring shtick linking all of the great Pink Panther films, starring Peter Sellers, has Inspector Clousseau trying to seduce some beautiful babe and get her into bed at his apartment. At the worst possible moment his manservant Kayto - who, at Clousseau's orders, has been lying in wait - attacks with near-lethal force and wrecks the seduction (and usually the apartment), oblivious to Clousseau's frantic cry: "Not now, Kayto, you imbecile...!"
I thought of that crazed slapstick sketch during recent weeks, as details of the Blagojevich scandal came to light - with the governor arrested for (apparently) offering to "sell" the vacated senate seat of President-elect Obama in exchange for cash or other emoluments. The grossly profane governor was caught on tape, openly discussing his willingness to appoint to Mr. Obama's seat whichever of several possible candidates might offer him the best deal in return.
The governor's arrest, impending indictment and eventual trial are of deep concern to Mr. Obama's transition team - including the president-elect, himself - because it's possible that some Obama people could have spoken with the governor about Mr. Obama's favored candidate and offered "payment", as the governor had demanded on one of the expletive-laden recordings of his telephone conversations. The Obama team has now released a report that purportedly "clears" them of any involvement with the governor's "pay to play" scheme. But it's unlikely that this self-investigation will satisfy either the public or investigative journalists. Ask yourself if such a report from Mr. Bush would have calmed the waters in the Valerie Plame controversy.
Barely a month from his inauguration, Mr. Obama desperately desires a smooth transition to bring him into the Oval Office without a hitch. But now, at the least opportune moment, he finds members of his staff - possibly including his designated Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel - dangerously close to implication in the repulsive machinations of the "Chicago Way". One can only imagine the frantic cries of "Not now, Blago, you imbecile..." ringing through the Obama headquarters. Even faithful allies in the Mainstream Media might not be able to hush this one up. It is simply too dirty and too disgusting. "Kayto" (a.k.a. Blago) could wreck everything, unless he suddenly "disappears" - another time-honored Chicago tradition.
"I don't understand why he is hanging on like this," I said to Al (proprietor of Al's Coffee Shop), last week. The governor had just made a bravura declaration that he would "fight and fight and fight" to keep his office - claiming that he had "done nothing wrong".
"Why doesn't he spare himself, his family and his party, and resign?" I asked. "The evidence seems pretty damning." Al agreed that the evidence of the wiretapped conversations does seem black against the governor, but he pointed out some possibilities that I hadn't considered.
"Blago is hanging tough," said Al, "because he is waiting for the ‘cavalry' to arrive." At my quizzical look, Al explained that the "cavalry" was Mr. Obama himself, once he is sworn in as the first president from Illinois since Abraham Lincoln. "The guv expects Mr. Obama to get him off the hook, so he is trying to run out the clock until the inauguration."
"But why would he think Mr. Obama (who ran as Mr. Clean in the recent campaign) could or would get him out of this mess?" I asked. "Blago can't possibly skate on these charges. Surely the wiretaps alone indicate a conspiracy to commit a federal crime."
Al replied: "I believe Blago expects that the Obama people will get him off because they know he can name names. And he knows they know. Probably he has already told the Big O that he will sing like Caruso unless they make the indictment (and maybe prosecutor Fitzgerald, too) go away. This might seem a tall order, but the Chicago Way means doing the ‘impossible', when necessary. In this case, not only Mr. Blagojevich's hide, but Rahm Emanuel's, might be at stake. All Blago has to do is say that The Rahmster made him an offer, and the Obama Administration could suffer a crippling injury - even ‘crib death' - before the inauguration has even happened. The governor wields a powerful club here. He's not going to go quietly."
I pooh-poohed this theory and teased Al about belonging to the Grassy Knoll Conspiracy Society. Al laughed, but in his raspy, "godfather" voice he reminded me of "the curious incident of the dog in the night" - a reference to a Sherlock Holmes tale in which a dog guarding a valuable racehorse raised no alarm when the horse was stolen from the stable during the night. (The villain was someone known to the dog.) The "curious incident" in the Blagojevich case, said Al, was the silence of Rahm Emanuel - never known to be at a loss for words when speaking could gain some advantage.
"Why is Emanuel so quiet on this outrageous abuse of the public trust? Why isn't he piling on to show how ‘ethical' the Obama administration plans to be? Why isn't he absolutely stomping Blago?" asked Al, who then answered his own questions.
"It's probably because he is up to his neck in the thing. Emanuel doesn't dare utter a word. He knows Blago might lower the boom if the Obama camp gets too righteous - especially if it looks like he's going to be sacrificed."
Illinois Democrats are in a fever to give Governor Blagojevich the bums rush, so the new governor can make a "clean" appointment to the vacant senate seat. If the effort to oust Mr. Blagojevich drags out, however, and he refuses to resign, irresistible pressure will build for a special election to fill the vacancy. Dems fear that in those circumstances Republicans might actually win the president-elect's just-vacated seat. This would be a stunning setback for Mr. Obama at the very outset of his term.
Are Al's conspiratorial views correct? We might never know, if the right people remain quiet. As for Mr. Fitzgerald - who knows what "offers he can't refuse" might have been pressed on him in order to keep Mr. Obama and his staff out of the Blagojevich mess?
Watch this situation carefully in the weeks ahead. Mr. Blagojevich is the key indicator. He's like a canary in the mine - an apt simile. If this corruption scandal fades away and just gets forgotten - with the leather jacket-clad Blago merrily glad-handing supporters and staying firmly in office - you'll know that his indictment "sleeps with the fishes".
On the other hand, if Blago is indicted, tried and convicted, we'll know he either held no high cards, or else he was "persuaded" not to play them.
"I want no acts of vengeance..."