In using the word “lynch” to make himself appear as the hapless victim of a murderous mob, Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich has abused history and provided yet one more reason why he should resign from office. Lynching was the most profound manifestation of evil in our nation’s history, an act of murder committed by White thugs against Black victims. Lynching remains an ugly scar reminding us all of the sins committed in the name of racism and slavery.
Governor Blagojevich has demonstrated little respect for fundamental values, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he would also misappropriate the language of history to defend his actions in trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
Is Blagojevich guilty of the crimes for which he was arrested last week? Guilt or innocence, in the legal sense, can only be determined in a court of law. Some legal scholars believe that he may have a technical case in his favor, since questions abound about whether the wiretaps on his phones were legally placed there, whether his loose talk about selling the Senate seat amounts to an actual solicitation of a bribe, whether the prosecutor pulled the trigger too soon on the case and thus, perhaps, opened a crack in the case through which the governor might wriggle.
Those are all legal questions for the judge and the jury.
Ethical issues, however, require the Governor to step down. Heck, even Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York, had the good grace to resign from office when he was caught engaging the services of a prostitute. His misconduct was not so severe to incur prosecution, but it was enough of a disgrace to force him to leave office.
By insisting that he will remain in office and fight the corruption charges “until I take my last breath,” Blagojevich is confusing a legal defense with ethical principles. This is not an uncommon problem among politicians and other public figures who seem to feel entitled to waste the public’s trust by staying in office to defend what is morally indefensible. The evidence that Blagojevich violated the most common sense rules about ethical conduct is very clear.
A few years back, I had occasion to testify before the Senate Finance Committee at a roundtable discussion of the governance of nonprofit oganizations. This occurred in the aftermath of the scandal at American University concerning the board and president, and also problems at the American Red Cross that led to a public rift between the CEO and the board. The Committee staff counsel asked me whether, in these cases, the presidents were right or the boards were right. I answered in a different way: when the morning headlines are all about you, as the chief executive, rather than about your institution, you must resign. Institutions — including the public polity — suffer greatly when the leader’s time and effort is distracted into mounting a personal defense of conduct that should never have occurred. The first obligation of every leader is to “do no harm” to the institution and community he or she leads.
As our students at Trinity know, we take our Honor System very seriously. Unethical conduct incurs serious consequences. Governor Blagojevich should think carefully about the example he sets for the rising generations when he stubbornly clings to an office whose trust he has violated. He should have considered the consequences before he ever picked up the telephone.