McCain and the Machine

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.


10 responses to “McCain and the Machine

  1. I am with you in being forever grateful to Peter Fitzgerald for picking Patrick Fitzgerald for the US Attorney job. It was a gutsy move, and it has paid off handsomely for ordinary citizens.

    The primary thing that would keep me from being likely ever to support someone like Peter Fitzgerald for Senate, however much he might be likely to buck his own party, is that in reality the most important vote he will cast will be on the first day, when the leadership of the Senate is seated. He’ll vote for the party that I distrust and disagree with on nearly ever issue, and no matter how much he tries to drag them to sanity, the effect of those efforts will pale in comparison to the effect of his vote for someone like Bill Frist or Tom DeLay on day one.

    That doesn’t apply in non-Federal elections, however, making a vote for an honest Republican in those races much easier to consider.

  2. Thanks for linking my article on Dennis Potter this morning, a man I find to be an almost endless source of inspiration. I have taken to quoting something he said that I think is appropriate here:

    “It’s important for people to stand and shout a bit, not to turn in to cynicism. Our choices are vital.”

  3. I agree mostly, but have to ask where the Maverick was for the last 7 years. Was he fighting corruption in war contracts? Did he call any administration officials on the carpet for incompetent management?

    Sure, you can find plenty to admire from his grilling of corporate television honchos in 2001. But I would point to his television appearances in 2002 arguing his party’s line on WMDs/Al Queda in Iraq/Let’s invade as the single best reason to show the maverick the door.

    Obama isn’t going to please you Steve by taking on the Daley machine/Illinois combine. He was right on the war though, and if ever there was a need to shake up the system, the Bush administration is exhibit A. Daley can’t hold a candle to the pros in DC and McCain isn’t telling us what changes he’d make. I assume that means no change at all.

  4. divisionstreet

    As I said, my post is in no way an endorsement of McCain, but actually he was one of the earliest and loudest voices criticizing the Bush administration’s handling of the war. He’s also authored more major bi-partisan legislation than Obama – easily. And there’s a reason why the Republican base was so uncomfortable with him before the Palin pick. So let’s not just rehash talking points. The way to victory for Obama, in my view, is to emphasize two things:

    1. I will make health care more affordable, improve your schools, create more jobs and focus on the economy like Bill Clinton’s laser. John McCain wants more tax cuts for the rich.

    2. I will get us out of Iraq much sooner than McCain will, and yet with honor and responsibility.

    I think everything else is nonsense.

    But also: Why won’t Obama take on the Machine? So are you saying McCain/Palin are right on this charge? Then which ticket is the true change ticket?

  5. It’s fairly simple: there is no benefit in criticizing local Chicago politics. We can agree that the Mayor is overseeing a vast criminal enterprise and we can also agree that he continues to be re-elected with ever increasing vote margins. It doesn’t make it right, but Obama is hardly a machine leader. And you are absolutely correct, he has been largely silent on the subject. It’s also a bit late to do much about it short of a federal takeover of city hall.

    Of greater concern to the rest of the country is the Iraq War and the debacle that is the Bush administration. McCain was one of the top cheerleaders on the way into Iraq, and to his credit, he’s lately been a critic. I find the timing of his criticism interesting, waiting until after 2004 to raise it. But at least it’s there and hopefully he’ll offer more.

    Your two points are also spot-on, and everything else truly is nonsense. If McCain/Palin are about change, why don’t they tell us the specific things they would change and how that is different from the Bush administration?

  6. divisionstreet

    I agree. I don’t think McCain has a domestic policy agenda. It might be a little late for it, but if Obama had something like a Middle Class Bill of Rights or some sort of specific approach, Agenda for American Renewal, I don’t know. He hasn’t been clear and specific enough, it’s just boilerplate. Or maybe some sort of centerpiece to his domestic agenda. “Jobs & Family.” (Family being schools and health, say). Repeat that over. I think he’d be better off focusing on that and not wasting his time on the Bridge to Nowhere and pigs with lipstick.

    Anyway, I hate to inject myself so much into comments, but you’re always a provocative thinker! 🙂

    Everybody else, have at it!

  7. Unindicted Co-conspirator

    While we need to be grateful to Peter Fitzgerald for bringing in an apparently honest prosecutor, I’ve never understood one thing about Senator Fitzgerald.
    John Kass goes on & on about how Fitzgerald was forced out of office.
    He could have run for re-election, he chose not to.
    Why is the question, but then Peter Fitz never answered any questions in his one & only campaign.

  8. divisionstreet

    I can answer that. Fitzgerald gave two reasons. First, he would have faced a primary challenge from state Republicans who wanted him out; then he would have faced a serious general election challenge from state Democrats who wanted him out. Given that he self-financed his campaigns, this would have been a huge financial commitment. Second, his son was a promising young ballplayer whom he wanted to spend time with, as well as the rest of his family, especially given that he didn’t particularly like the job of U.S. Senator; he swam uphill for six years, and that was enough. He’s no longer even in politics.

    Regarding answering questions, you are right to an extent: PF’s Senate campaign media strategy included avoiding the Chicago media market – not unlike Barack Obama’s strategy of campaigning under the radar Downstate. Blago, too, won by capturing Downstate and it’s something the Chicago media hasn’t quite caught on too – that a lot of people live down there!

  9. “we can also agree that he continues to be re-elected with ever increasing vote margins”

    70% of only 20% of the eligible voters going to the polls may be numerically an increasing vote margins, but it also shows that so many voters are disaffected that a truly concerted effort to crack the Machine (with tight security for those who do) could work. I have to think it’s possible.

  10. Unindicted Co-conspirator

    Thanks for the answer, but now you need to go after Kass for his neverending insistence that Peter Fitzgerald was “forced out” when he voluntarily walked away, even though it was a combination of some duress & hating politics.
    And what happened to his son in baseball?

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