The fallout from Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's struggles with the feds over corruption charges has needlessly cast confusion on President-elect Barack Obama's transition, and part of the blame lies on Obama and his staff.
When the charges and attendant transcripts were made public, it seemed clear that Obama had refused to play ball with Blagojevich and pony up some sweetmeats in order to seal the appointment of Obama's associate Valerie Jarrett, now slated to be a White House counselor, as Obama's successor as U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Such vacancies have occurred often. The matter is usually resolved quickly in discussions between the person moving to higher office, in this case Obama, and the person with responsibility for appointing a successor, in this case Blagojevich. In 1964, for instance, Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey already had settled with Minnesota Gov. Karl Rolvaag, before Humphrey's election as vice president, that state attorney general Walter Mondale would be named to Humphrey's vacated Senate seat.
Thus, I expected Obama immediately to say something such as: "These charges are deplorable. I (or my staff) discussed my successor with the governor but, as the transcripts make clear, we came to no agreement." Instead, the president-elect declared that an exhaustive inquiry would take place among his staff and a definitive report issued a couple days later. No report has yet been issued. Instead, rumors keep recurring that incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel did have unspecified contact with Blagojevich or his staff.
News reports indicate that Greg Craig, who will be Obama's White House counsel, and John Podesta, directing his transition, benefited from their experience in the Clinton White House in framing Obama's stance on the issue. (Craig defended President Clinton against impeachment charges; Podesta was Clinton's chief of staff). I have known both Craig and Podesta since their entry into politics and know both to be people of integrity. Yet Clinton, it need not be said, is not Obama. With Clinton, who parsed words to dodge ethical bullets, there was a need to treat each new disclosure carefully, lest it lead to something more serious. Obama, at least thus far, appears a man with little to hide. Thus there should have been no reason he could not tell the American people, promptly and simply, that he was not involved in any hanky panky regarding his successor in the Senate. Everyone would have gotten it and moved on.
A week later, the issue still simmers and distracts attention from the truly serious issues Obama faces before and after his Jan. 20 inaugural. Please, Mr. President-elect, keep it simple and straight. Don't needlessly turn trust into mistrust.