My Virgil in plumbing the Inferno of Chicago politics was the columnist Mike Royko. He better than anyone understood the Chicago machine's intricate trade-offs between efficacy and corruption in "the city that works".
I thought of Royko this week with the passing of another Chicagoan, Dan Rostenkowski. Royko didn't like him, even though they hailed from the same neighborhood and ethnicity. But when Rostenkowski went to prison for abuses of his Congressional expense accounts, Royko came to his defense.
Writing in 1996, Royko said that Rostenkowski's sin was in not recognizing that times had changed. Acts that were once considered shameful were now performed in public, while misdeeds that were once deemed petty now made headlines. Ambitious prosecutors and rival representatives were eager to fell the mighty. Rostenkowski was taken down with the help of the waxing Newt Gingrich after revelations that his office had redeemed Congressionally supplied postage stamps for cash.
In a last line that echoes Jesus' defense of the woman taken in adultery, Royko prayed that, for the man who would condemn Rostenkowski without reading the evidence, "Lord, please let a hard-nosed cop grab that mope the next time he runs a red."
Some may feel the same about the tireless Charles Rangel, who has resigned his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee under a cloud of tax fraud. Come to think of it, Rostenkowski's predecessor once removed, Wilbur Mills, fell from grace when his mistress, an Argentine stripper, jumped from his car into the Washington Tidal Basin.
Something about that gavel leads those who wield it into the abyss.
Homer, Virgil, and Dante; detail from a Vatican fresco by Raphael. Interesting that Homer is the most compelling figure, while Virgil appears dour, and Dante, callow. Click on the picture for a closer look.