One thing that’s become obvious, even at elite levels in this country, is that we don’t really believe a man is innocent until proved guilty.
If the authorities haul you in, we’re sold. We’re modernized, civilized lynch mobs.
We had that local case in Little Rock in which a local television personality was brutally killed. At the arrested suspect’s perp walk, a journalist shouted "you’re a monster" and other convicting phrases at this man against whom no charge had yet been proved beyond a single juror’s reasonable doubt.
So now we behold this piece of work that is the Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich.
We’re widely persuaded that he’s weird and that he has said things on tape that make a powerful suggestion that he is a corrupt or ethics-devoid politician.
It seems that he invoked the idea of extracting money from persons trying to get him to make an appointment to the U.S. Senate to fill the seat of President-elect Barack Obama.
The Democratic leadership of the U.S. Senate has said Blagojevich should resign as governor merely for being arrested. This leadership has said that, if this governor persists in office and seeks to exercise his state constitutional authority to fill the Obama vacancy, as he has now done, then the Senate will avail itself of federal constitutional authority — dubious, actually — not to seat whomever Blagojevich should send.
But it’s not only that Blagojevich hasn’t yet been convicted. It’s that he hasn’t even been charged.
The FBI hauled him in not on a grand jury indictment, but on a criminal complaint, something akin to an arrest warrant. It said it was acting pre-emptively because the tapes indicated the governor was about to act criminally in something as important as filling a U.S. Senate seat.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald asked a federal judge Wednesday for three more months to gather up an actual federal indictment against the governor.
Let me run that by you again: The FBI arrested this guy to preclude him from a crime spree. So we must assume that the crime spree hadn’t actually begun. Thus, what we have before us is a case in which the governor of Illinois is on tape talking crazily and horribly about the criminal enrichment of himself that he might be able to fashion through this U.S. Senate vacancy — that he might soon undertake, that is.
No one wants to defend this guy, but the fact is that he is innocent until proved guilty. More to the point, he’s surely innocent before being formally charged. Even more to the point, there is the tricky matter of what the crime might be, since the authorities arrested him before he could commit it and, so far as we know, no money has changed hands.
Meantime, Blagojevich is the legally serving governor of the state of Illinois. And now he has exercised his authority to presume to appoint a new U.S. senator to fill a vacancy.
As it happens, his selection of Roland W. Burris (while not Blagojevich’s first choice; U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago turned him down) seems fine on the merits.
Burris, 71, is a former state comptroller and attorney general. Everyone agrees that he has a good reputation. No one has a thing in the world to say against him except that, when asked by a creepy governor if he would like to go the U.S. Senate for a while, he said sure.
Unless Burris is on tape offering money for the appointment, in which case he and the governor ought to be indicted forthwith, then I can’t think of a reason in the world not to let him accept and serve this legal and perfectly legitimate appointment to the U.S. Senate.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.