John McCain and his campaign surrogates have begun asking when Barack Obama ever challenged corruption in Chicago and in his own party the way McCain has his party over his long Senate career. Like it or not, the answer is, basically, never. Even more interesting is how Obama’s record in that regard contrasts with that of his predecessor in the United States Senate, Peter Fitzgerald. (It’s hard to believe that Obama would have gone outside the Illinois establishment and hired Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. attorney; he wouldn’t even endorse Pat Dowell over Dorothy Tillman.)
In 2001, I profiled Peter Fitzgerald for Chicago magazine, where I worked at the time. As part of the reporting, I went to Washington, D.C., to see Fitzgerald in action, as it were. And it was there that I also witnessed McCain close-up and snagged a brief interview with him. I thought it would be fun to reprint that part of the Fitzgerald profile in which McCain appears.
Fitzgerald has a riverboat issue in Washington. It’s digital TV. In 1997, the federal government gave away digital broadcast licenses worth an estimated $70 billion to broadcasters in exchange for their commitment to develop a digital television market by 2006. Progress has been so slow it’s virtually impossible broadcasters will meet the deadline. And that has John McCain, chairman of the Senate commerce committee, livid. That’s why, one day in March 2001 when the real action in Washington is at a House hearing about former President Clinton’s controversial pardons, room 253 of the Russell Senate Office Building is standing room only, packed with bemused journalists and high-paid lobbyists scribbling furiously on their legal pads. A trio of broadcasting executives have been called before the committee, and they are barely in their seats before McCain starts grilling them.
Fitzgerald, who joined the committee this year, comes off like a McCain-in-training. “Had I been here in ’96, ’97, I would’ve strongly urged the government to auction off the spectrum,” he says, when he finally gets his chance to speak. “That would’ve been a fairer way to do it than to determine by raw political clout who gets to own this new spectrum.”
McCain nods approvingly. McCain is a fan. “I find him refreshing, and sometimes exhilirating, because he is willing to think outside the box and display some independence,” McCain says later. “You can stay here forever and leave without ever creating a ripple, or you can take some risks and do what you think is right.”
McCain lambasted those broadcast executives that day – deservedly so. And that was par for the course. You don’t have to agree with him on the issues or support his candidacy for president to recognize that he was – at least at the time – the maverick he was touted as, and that a maverick still lurks within him. (In fact, if I were the Obama campaign I would pursue a line of attack that said: Wait, do you really want a maverick in the White House? You don’t know what he’ll do!) Yes, the term is overused by the media. But to suggest he’s simply “more of the same” is patently untrue.
Similarly, I would rather have an honest Republican in office than a dishonest Democrat. The only way to break the back of the Machine in Chicago and Cook County, and the Combine statewide – and the dysfunction that is the federal government – is to elect honest officeholders who can hold honest debates. It’s not always about who is closest to you on the issues; that way lies a captive electorate. And a democracy that is perverted.
This is in no way an endorsement of John McCain. I just think he can be defeated by exposing his near total lack of a domestic agenda and what seems to be a Cold War foreign policy mentality. But it sure would be fun to see McCain-Palin take on Washington.
At the same time, that’s not an endorsement of Barack Obama. Peter Fitzgerald was far more of a change agent, someone who took on the Combine rather than climbed to power with its help. I would rather have Fitzgerald as my senator than Obama, despite my disagreements with Fitzgerald on most domestic issues.
This is an endorsement instead for no longer being played for fools because there is nowhere else to go. My advice is to vote against the Machine at every juncture, support every independent candidate you can, and fight for electoral reform and good government measures with more passion than fighting for the stiffs the two parties keep sending us.