I was on a TV show the other day and the host asked me what I thought could be done to bring the Democratic leaders off this state back from "the brink of the abyss."
Too late, I said. We're already in the abyss, and we've been there for a while.
House Speaker Michael Madigan refuses to even be in the same room with his Democratic counterparts, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones. The last time Madigan showed up for a meeting, he played "telephone" with Blagojevich, whispering his comments intended for the governor to someone who was sitting between the two men. Blagojevich replied through the same intermediary. Madigan abruptly left the meeting when an ally of Sen. Jones all but called him a racist.
Jones has welded himself to Blagojevich all year, perhaps because his family's finances have done so well recently. His wife got a big promotion (after the rules were changed) and a major pay boost. His son got a nice raise. His stepson scored tons of contracts. Jones despises Madigan, believing he doesn't get the respect he deserves from His Royal Highness. Madigan has little respect for Jones, so the bad feelings are mutual. Jones and Blagojevich have been fighting Madigan shoulder to shoulder all year.
Blagojevich has been trying to knock Madigan off his throne ever since the governor was elected in 2002. He stepped up his game this year, to no avail. Madigan is probably more entrenched than ever. The governor's attacks merely served to rally Madigan's House Democratic members to his side. And it doesn't help the governor's cause that his job approval rating rivals President Bush's dismal levels. Opposing the governor has little downside, while supporting him could have serious consequences, including with the US Attorney, who is currently combing through the governor's little black book.
Nothing is getting done in Springfield purely because of this gigantic, hateful clash of egos and agendas. The "spring" legislative session was supposed to end on May 31st. The governor has ordered the General Assembly back to Springfield January 2nd to try to wrap things up, but I, for one, am not hopeful. We're in the abyss, remember. By the way, the governor has called a kabillion special sessions this year, and all have failed.
Illinois has forever been a "can-do" state, so it's difficult for many to believe that all hope is lost. "Something" can always be done. So, why not here?
I was thinking about that very question when former Gov. Jim Thompson phoned.
Thompson had called to bust my chops about something I had written on a proposal that he helped pass in Springfield. We merrily traded insults back and forth, never taking anything personally. I whacked him but good on his goofy idea to have the state buy Wrigley Field and lease it back to whomever buys the Chicago Cubs. He upbraided me for allowing my hatred of all things "Cub" to undermine my judgment. We laughed and had a good ol' time, hurling insults at each other in the spirit of the holidays.
And then it hit me.
Thompson was one of the most can-do governors we've ever had. Love him or hate him, he got things done. During his final reelection campaign, after ten years in office, he was endorsed by both the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the Illinois AFL-CIO. He has a knack for bringing people together, and he can charm the fangs off a rattlesnake.
Big Jim's law firm represents Blagojevich's campaign fund, so he has a relationship there. Thompson also chats regularly with Speaker Madigan and Senate President Jones. Both men still have respect for the old man.
So, I asked Thompson if he could do something about our immovable object meets irresistible force dilemma.
Apparently, I wasn't the first to make this suggestion, and Thompson didn't come out and say he'd do it, but he did seem intrigued.
We have no grownups running this show, and we won't get any for a long time. The next best thing might be to inject a bonafide adult into the equation. Perhaps the only person with greater people skills than Thompson is George Ryan, but he isn't exactly available these days.
Then again, I'm not sure that a hundred Jim Thompson's could solve this intractable problem. But, hey, it's the holiday season. I'm allowed a little hope.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.