Rupert Cornwell: Whiff of sleaze still lingers in the Windy City

Out of America: Chicago has always played to different rules – and the latest political trial shows little has changed
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"Look, I wanna go to him and say, give us the fucking money." Thus Alonzo "Lon" Monk, chief of staff to Rod Blagojevich, between 2003 and 2009 the Governor of the great state of Illinois, speaking to his boss apropos a $100,000 (£67,500) donation from a racetrack owner. The payment was meant to be a quid pro quo for a bill that would have diverted a chunk of casino revenue to prop up Illinois' struggling horseracing industry.

That delightful exchange, released last week, is one of many in similar vein, during 500 hours of phone conversations between Mr Blagojevich, his brother Rob and Mr Monk, secretly recorded by the FBI as part of a federal corruption investigation against Mr Blagojevich. The ex-governor now faces a 19-count indictment that could send him to jail for over 400 years if convicted. The trial has just started in Chicago. It's already proving to be a cracker.

Mr Blagojevich, it will be remembered, was arrested and charged in December 2008. A month later, he was impeached and removed from office. Now he's in the dock, accused among other things of trying to sell the Illinois Senate seat previously occupied by Barack Obama. Under state law, the Governor appoints an interim successor in such circumstances – and in Mr Blagojevich's immortal words, enshrined on those FBI tapes, "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing."

But forget the profanities. Forget the fact that the scandal was like a stinkbomb at Mr Obama's presidential nuptials. Forget even the possibility that some top White House aides, including the chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, could yet be called to testify. These are mere distractions, compared to the unprecedented primer in political graft, Illinois- and Chicago-style, to which we will be treated over the next few months.

What is it about Illinois? I'm not talking about Springfield, the unassuming state capital where the legislature technically resides, but best known as the place where "Honest Abe" Lincoln, America's greatest president, made his career. The real (and all too often dishonest) action is where it always has been: in the Windy City.

Maybe the machine politics of modern democracy – the trading of public jobs, services and contracts in return for votes and financial support – wasn't invented in Chicago. But the city has perfected the technique, setting the example for state government as well. Back in the Al Capone era, Chicago's then mayor "Big Bill" Thompson was accused by the local press of turning the city into an international laughing stock, celebrated for "moronic buffoonery" and "unchecked graft". These days, the very thought of Capone makes law-abiding Chicagoans, justifiably proud of their bustling and orderly city, cringe. Alas, old ways die hard.

Despite the language on the tapes, Capone-style gangsterism is long gone. It is nonetheless a fact that since 1972 no fewer than 80 elected state and city officials have been convicted of crimes. Three of the state's last nine governors have been to jail. Mr Blagojevich could well make it four: small wonder they talk of installing a permanent "governor's wing" at the state prison in Joliet.

It's the same story at city level. Back in 1991 The Chicago Sun-Times actually ran a front-page story marvelling that not one of the 50 aldermen who make up the city council, had been indicted or convicted that year. The police department badge worn by Chicago's finest carries the official city motto of "Urbs in Horto", or "City in a Garden". That may be true, given Chicago's handsome parks and green spaces. But Mike Royko, the late, great Sun-Times columnist, had a point when he suggested a new motto, "Ubi est meus?", or "Where's mine?"

The same could be said of Dan Rostenkowski, a typical product of the Chicago machine who, as chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was the most powerful national politician from Illinois of the modern era, until Mr Obama and Mr Emanuel came along.

But in 1994 "Rosty" was caught using congressional funds to buy presents for friends and keeping "ghost" employees on his staff. As scandals go, it was chickenfeed; indeed, Rosty's friend, the former president Gerald Ford, later wrote that "Danny's problem was he played precisely under the rules of the city of Chicago. Those aren't the same rules that any other place in the country lives by, but in Chicago they were totally legal, and Danny got a screwing."

That essentially is the Blagojevich defence now – that he is merely practising business as usual. "Is this a joke?" he asked when federal agents arrived at his home to arrest him.

Since then he has declared his complete innocence, describing his treatment as "Kakfa-esque". A hard core of supporters believe him. One day last week, the menu at the courthouse cafeteria briefly offered "Blago Innocent" turkey burgers, quickly banned by officials on the grounds they might expose jurors to an "inappropriate" statement about the case.

But hardened students of the Chicago way find the tapes pretty damning. Mr Blagojevich must also contend with his old aide "Lon" Monk, who has done a plea deal and is co-operating with prosecutors. Worst still, Mr Blagojevich is up against the implacable Patrick Fitzgerald, the US attorney for northern Illinois whose recent scalps include Conrad Black, and Lewis Libby, once chief of staff to Dick Cheney.

Whatever happens, though, Blago will probably land on his feet. He may have left office with approval ratings in single figures and Illinois' public finances in a shambles that makes Greece look good. But he's sleek, youthful and a relentless self-promoter. America, too, is the land of second chances and redemption by TV. Don't forget that Chicago is hometown not just to Al Capone and Michael Jordan, but also Oprah Winfrey.