Blagojevich: Charisma Kills

Repeat after me: Charisma kills. Sometimes it takes a life; more often it yields a willing suspension of belief. When overcome by a charismatic leader, we endow others with near mythic qualities. Charisma can make fools of us. It can rob us in the dead of night of things of great value.

Consider for a moment the prosecution of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The governor is accused of trying to sell a vacant U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. We've heard his voice on tape, sounding like a surly thug looking to take care of Numero Uno.

His conduct was all the more jarring as the seat for sale was the one belonging to none other than Barack Obama, the new King Arthur, on his way to Washington for a second round of Camelot. Did John F. Kennedy break a religious barrier becoming the first Catholic to serve as president? Well, so, too does Obama break a barrier, in this case a more fundamental line, the color line. He is all hope for a better day. And so are we.

The contrast between Blagojevich and Obama is almost Manichean in intensity: good facing evil. We must expunge evil at all costs. Just days after the arrest of Blagojevich, Illinois' attorney general asked the state's Supreme Court to remove the governor from office as unfit. Where were the protests against this precipitous attempt to abuse the legal process? If Blagojevich cannot govern, that is a political question. The courts ought not to be conducting coups in response to allegations in federal indictments.

The Illinois legislature is now considering indictment of the governor. We're still punch drunk enough to want to rush to judgment. When Blagojevich stands his ground to fight, critics rail that he has lost his mind. I worry rather that it is we who have lost our bearings.

What has become of the presumption of innocence? Sure, the governor is on tape. Sure he said somethings that sound mighty incriminating. But tapes never tell the entire story. What was said before the recordings began? What was whispered before the "on" button was switched? What enemies set a perfect trap for a man they wanted to topple?

Barack Obama has been swept into office on a crest of hope. He is a spellbinding orator, a Black Everyman whose dream has become our reality. It is understandable that we sit back dazed, and suspend judgment, hoping, this once, that the gods will redeem their promise of redemption. This charismatic powerhouse promises to blur old distinctions and remake us anew. That is the gift of charisma, a transforming power to recast the very terms in which we conceive of the possible.

But charisma is invariably broken. Christ's cross, King's bullet, Kennedy's trip to Dallas. None of us are larger than life. And when dreams become nightmares lesser mortals find security in more mundane promises and procedures. The rule of law is such a source of mundane order.

Illinois is rushing headlong to judgment, trying to sweep the embarrassment of Blagojevich under a rug, the better to bask in Obama's rays of hope. But that is a mistake. The governor is within his rights to insist that he be tried by a jury before being found guilty. The rush to judgment in Illinois is the act of a righteous mob, the scariest sort of mob.

And who is the mob's ring leader? Why none other that Illinois' U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. He has asked a federal court for permission to share secret grand jury material to the Illinois impeachment committee. Where is the outrage over this? When a defendant seeks such material he runs face first into a stone wall of privilege. Why is the accused in this case being crucified on a cross of hypocrisy?

Don't get me wrong, from afar, Blagojevich does not look appealing. But he will soon be gone or acquitted. What scares me more than a rogue governor is a rogue Government, fueled by the passions of folks willing to sacrifice procedural safeguards and the rule of law the better to protect the afterglow of a newly elected and charismatic man to the presidency.

Charisma kills, I tell you. It is killing now. And no few seem to notice.


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