Politicians are peculiar creatures.
They name parks, highways, airports and just about anything else that’s paid for by us after themselves.
And if a politician rises high enough, a statue will be erected in the person’s honor.
Statues are designed to be permanent. But politicians’ reputations are much more fluid.
Six years ago, then-Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was pushing to erect a statue on the Illinois Capitol grounds of former U.S. Speaker of the House Denny Hastert.
Hastert said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Unforeseen modesty on the part of a retired pol? Nope. At the point Hastert declined the honor, he knew he was under investigation by the feds for sexually abusing students when he was a high school coach and funneling hush money to one of them to keep the allegations quiet.
He eventually pleaded guilty to a financial crime and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
In fairness to Madigan, he had no idea of any problems when he recommended the honor. But if you think that political pratfall will discourage other Illinois lawmakers from recommending politicians for statues, think again.
Today, there is a proposal pending to place a Ronald Reagan statue on the grounds of the Illinois Capitol. Is he worthy? Well, more worthy than some, but less so than others.
Back in 1984, I voted for Reagan. But I don’t want one cent of taxpayer dollars to go toward honoring him or any other politician. Isn’t having been elected to public office distinction enough? Statues have little to do with history and much to do with glorification.
Yesterday’s heroes may be tomorrow’s scoundrels.
For example, 103 years ago a statue of Stephen Douglas was erected on the Illinois Capitol lawn. He was a U.S. Senator and the archrival of Abraham Lincoln. More recently critics pointed out he was a slaveowner and a political impediment to emancipation. So, last year, his statue was removed.
We have had so much trouble with statehouse statues, one can’t help but wonder if the Land of Lincoln has an edifice complex?
The political class exists for its own benefit, and they like to venerate one another.
Interestingly enough, personal dishonesty or political graft has never been sufficient cause for a politician’s image to be removed from the Illinois Capitol.
On the statehouse’s second floor, you’ll find portraits of Otto Kerner, Dan Walker and George Ryan. All served as governor and all ended up in prison.
After impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich, lawmakers passed legislation forbidding public funding of portraits of governors removed from office. They really hated that Blago. It’s the only time I can think of such action being taken.
In fact, when the lawmakers passed that resolution, there was so much vitriol during the debate that I couldn’t help but think of a scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” when pharaoh said, “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time.”
But obviously they didn’t learn their lesson because there are plenty of other paintings and statues honoring political scoundrels in that building.
One of my favorites was a painting of former Illinois Secretary of State and Speaker of the House Paul Powell. Powell’s motto supposedly was, “There’s only one thing worse than a defeated politician, and that’s a broke one.”
When Powell died in 1970, more than $800,000 was found stuffed in shoeboxes in the closet of his Springfield hotel room. That would be about $5.6 million in today’s money.
And Paul Powell never drew a salary greater than $30,000.
Powell’s portrait used to hang in the visitor’s gallery of the Illinois House. Whenever I’d walk by it, I liked to give the picture frame a nudge. Like so many Illinois politicians, he deserves to be remembered the way he was — crooked.
Scott Reeder is a veteran journalist in the Springfield area and can be reached at: [email protected].