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Chicago - America’s ‘most theatrically corrupt’ city

Back in the 1920s, Al Capone would hold court at his headquarters at the Lexington Hotel beneath portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson – the mayor, whose campaign he bankrolled.

The man who had brought Capone to Chicago was a Neapolitan crook called John Torrio, who had himself been lured there in 1910 by a brothel owner known as "Big Jim" Colosimo – a precinct captain for the infamous "Bathhouse John" Coughlin, an alderman who took bribes in return for contracts.

Ethnic groups were played off against each other by politicians. To this day, many Irish-Americans are policemen while Italian-Americans predominate among transport workers.

A year after Torrio’s arrival, the political economist Charles Merriam remarked: "Chicago is unique. It is the only completely corrupt city in America." Nearly seven decades later, the late Studs Terkel, the author and Chicago radio host, begged to differ. "Chicago is not the most corrupt American city, it’s the most theatrically corrupt," he said.

Either way, the gut reaction of most Chicagoans to the FBI complaint against Governor Rod Blagojevich, outlining his baroque plans, to "monetise" Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat was not shock or even disgust. It was surprise that he had been so reckless as to discuss them on a bugged telephone. To this day, Illinois campaign finance laws are astonishingly lax – there is no cap on the amount of cash a politician can solicit.

After all, if Blagojevich is jailed, he’ll be the fourth Illinois governor out of the last eight to end up behind bars. The city might be forgiven for thinking that it was about to undergo something of a rehabilitation, become better known for Obama, thick-crust pizza, Michael Jordan and jazz rather than Capone and political sleaze. Only last month "Time magazine" pronounced the corruption reputation was "based on an outdated caricature – but this week has ended that vain hope.

Blagojevich’s lawyer said that what his client had done was "just politics". Chicago’s own Reverend Jesse Jackson, who once had a whole book written about him entitled "Shakedown", remarked: "Politics is a contact sport. Only those on the sidelines have clean uniforms."

Jackson’s son Congressman Jesse Jackson Jnr, who denies wrongdoing, was identified in the FBI complaint as "Candidate 5", whom Blagojevich believed would give him a million dollars for the Senate seat."

In New York and Washington, many column inches have been devoted to laments about the Sopranoesque profanity of the governor, who vowed not to give a friend of this "mother—-er Obama" the Senate seat without a quid pro quo from the president-elect. "F—- him. For nothing? F—- him."

Even his wife Patti was caught on tape ordering one of her husband’s aides to stall a $150 million sale by her husband’s tormenters at the "Chicago Tribune" of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, with a salty directness – "hold up that f—-ing Cubs shit. . . f—- them".

But Mrs Blagojevich’s is father Dick Mell, a Chicago machine politician who helped launch his son-in-law’s career – and that’s how Chicago machine politicians talk when they’re trying to extort money, shake down rivals and enforce the "pay to play schemes"that have made the city infamous.

As Bathhouse Coughlin’s compatriot Alderman Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna once said: "Chicago ain’t no sissy town."

Although Obama has run on a platform of reform, this is the political swamp – never drained in a century or more – from which he emerged.

He is a close ally of Mayor Richard Daley, a machine politician who has had aides convicted of corruption and whose father Mayor Richard "Boss" Daley helped deliver Chicago for John F. Kennedy in 1960 with the help, as legend has it, of scores of stuffed ballot boxes. Those who questioned the jobs Boss Daley engineered for his sons would be told to kiss the mistletoe that hung from his coattails.

Obama won his first election not by appealing to the better angels of the voters’ consciences but by successfully challenging the signatures on the proposal forms of each of his challengers, thereby ensuring that he ran unopposed.

In the Illinois state senate, Obama’s mentor was Emil Jones, a traditional ward politician and Blagojevich ally who rose from being a sewer inspector to being a contender – though he did not figure in the FBI’s complaint – for the president-elect’s Senate seat.

The Daily Telegraph

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