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Warthen: Obama’s clean; let’s move on now

ALL RIGHT, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it is my firm belief that Barack Obama had nothing to do with the (alleged) sordid doings of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

At this point (if you’re sane), you’re saying, of course he didn’t. But you just say that because you’re not a part of the narrow partisan universe of 24/7 TV news and blogs. Unfortunately, the president-elect himself ignores that world at his peril. Hence the statement released Monday from his transition office:

At the direction of the President-elect, a review of Transition staff contacts with Governor Blagojevich and his office has been conducted and completed and is ready for release. That review affirmed the public statements of the President-elect that he had no contact with the governor or his staff, and that the President-elect’s staff was not involved in inappropriate discussions with the governor or his staff over the selection of his successor as US Senator.

Actually, that’s just the first of three paragraphs in the non-denial denial — a Watergate-era term that actually works better in this very different context Obama has nothing to deny; there’s no reason for him to have to deny anything; and yet he knows that he must.

Barack Obama is trying to organize an administration to govern in a time of war and serious economic crisis, and at least a portion of his staff is having to stop everything and investigate, in detail, whether anyone on the team ever had anything to do with that other Illinios Democrat that might in any way reflect badly on the president-elect, and then very carefully deny wrongdoing, being careful not to over-deny.

For instance, if the initial reaction of the transition had been to say “no one associated with Sen. Obama had any conversations with anyone in the governor’s office about the open seat,” they would already have to retrench — it was reported over the weekend that Rahm Emanuel talked with people on the governor’s staff about candidates for the Senate seat who would be pleasing to Mr. Obama. Which is a perfectly natural, innocent thing to do — but if your initial denial had gone too far, you’d be in trouble. You’d be having to retract, and then there would be blood in the water.

That’s why, according to The New York Times’ Week In Review section Sunday, the Clinton administration veterans on Obama’s team (Mr. Emanuel et al.) “imposed a cone of silence on colleagues so they would not make a remark that could come back to haunt them.... Republicans were ready to pounce, rushing out statements linking Mr. Obama to Mr. Blagojevich within an hour or so after the governor’s arrest was reported. They too knew the script and that any opening must be exploited. Politics in this hyperpartisan age, after all, is the ultimate contact sport.”

The Times piece was interesting, but it was flawed: It traced the atmosphere of reflexive defensiveness to the Clinton impeachment. The implication is that these Democratic veterans know to what lengths those dastardly Republicans will go to tar their guy. Let me explain the Clinton impeachment: It was related to what the president himself did, and what he said about what he did, in office. It was sordid; it was shameful; it was demeaning, and the president lied to us about it. Got the picture?

Mr. Obama, by contrast, has done nothing. Nothing that is, except get elected president by running against the very culture of perpetual partisan character assassination, thereby creating a vacancy in the U.S. Senate that some sleazebag proposed (allegedly) to sell.

The only thing the two incidents have in common is that in both cases, Republicans are poised to gleefully take advantage of the situation, to the Democrats’ detriment. Just as Democrats have used every sharp implement they could get their hands on (and more than a few dull ones) for the past eight years to rip and tear at George W. Bush and the horse he rode in on.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with it. We’ve got a president-elect who is an honest, decent man who wants to lead us beyond all that. And although I didn’t support him in the election — I liked the other honest, decent guy more — I want to say here and now that I stand ready and willing to follow him to that better place.

The other day, my colleague Robert Ariail did a cartoon that showed Barack Obama walking across the surface of smelling sewage flowing from a pipe labeled “Chicago Politics.” A bystander remarks, “Walking on it’s one thing... not getting any of it on him — that’s the miracle.” Which is a good cartoon.

The only problem is, it only makes sense within a context in which we assume that Obama has a problem when he hasn’t even done anything wrong. Ah, but you will say that man is born to sin, and wallows in it if he’s involved in Democratic Chicago politics.

But here, too, is a difference. I point you to one of the editorials that prompted Mr. Blagojevich to try to get the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune fired. It invited the governor to come in and answer some questions about, among other things, his relationship with developer Tony Rezko. The editorial noted that when Sen. Obama was invited to do the same several months ago at a critical point in his candidacy, “He accepted the invitation and, during 92 minutes of questioning, answered literally every question put to him about his relationship with Tony Rezko.... With that interview session and a meeting at the Sun-Times, Obama largely put the Rezko issue behind him.”

And, they could have added, it helped earn him The Tribune’s endorsement, its first for a Democrat for president in its 161-year history. The editors were able to tell the difference between an honest man and a crook.

So can I. And since I see no reason whatsoever to doubt that Barack Obama is completely clean on this, I’d like to see him and his team spend their time on something more productive than this nonsense, from here on out.

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