The former governor of Illinois would like the former junior senator from Illinois to talk to some friends of his. Specifically, ousted governor Rod Blagojevich would like President Barack Obama to testify in his upcoming corruption trial, and is asking the court to subpoena him. The former gov says the former sen could testify about the credibility of some of the witnesses against him.
This is, as the post title suggests, a very very bad idea. Now, is a trial in which the inside dealings of Chicago politics -- Blagojevich was a Chicago pol before he ran for governor -- get discussed in open court a lot of fun? Indeed it is; fun for all. Would it also be fun to watch President Obama reveal a little of how his own time working things the Chicago way demonstrates that a good deal of his high oratory about being a different kind of politician who doesn't play the old-style games was just the emperor's new rhetoric? Indeed it would be, although probably not nearly as many people would agree with me there.
But this is still a very very bad idea and the trial court should not grant permission to Blagojevich's attorneys to subpoena the president. If that decision is appealed, higher courts should not overturn the trial court's ruling. Blagojevich is on trial because while he was still governor, he was smart enough to see that his power to appoint a successor to President Obama's senate seat could be a windfall for him, financially as well as otherwise. But he was dumb enough to discuss that windfall on a phone which was also being listened to by agents of law enforcement. Thus, he was indicted, and thus, he became a former governor. The president has maintained that neither he nor any of his staff ever spoke with Blagojevich about these matters.
His testimony might prove exactly that -- that he had no hand in any of this, nor did anyone acting on his behalf. That would, it might seem, be the end of it all and there's no real harm done. Except...
Way back in 1997, lawyers for Paula Jones wanted to subpoena President Bill Clinton to testify in her lawsuit against him that alleged sexual harassment. President Clinton said that the lawsuit should wait until after he was out of office and that sitting presidents shouldn't be subject to subpoena, because it takes attention away from being president. The Supreme Court eventually ruled against him, and the lawsuit proceeded. After the president was questioned, a judge dismissed Jones' lawsuit, saying she didn't have enough evidence of her claim to warrant a trial. Jones appealed, and Clinton eventually settled. All over, no harm done. Except...
During his deposition, the President denied having sexual relations with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. That, as it happened, was not true. Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, investigating possible corruption in an old land deal that involved the president and his wife, decided to switch his attack to perjury allegations, which he could prove and which eventually resulted in impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. Although Clinton was impeached, he was not convicted and served out his term.
But as anyone who remembers the late 90s can tell you, the intensity of the partisan venom that swirled around these events was devastating. Political opponents were no longer honorable people with whom one might disagree or think misguided -- they were the embodiment of evil and the sum total of all that was stupid in the known universe. Some of this may have come from the fact that Clinton's political gifts kept many people on his side even though he was a man who cheated on his wife with a woman half his age and lied under oath about it. Such a circumstance frustrated opponents, and the thin-skinned leadership of the Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn't help cool things down.
Whatever its cause, the venom didn't drain away when Clinton left office -- it switched targets and sources. Now President George W. Bush was the worst thing to happen to the world since it cooled and his opponents spoke not of disagreeing with him, but hating him.
Clinton was tripped up by a matter completely unrelated to the actual deposition he gave. And if a man who can parse a definition like he could and skate on ice so thin you could breathe through it can get tripped up on some unrelated matter, President Obama does not stand a chance. Someone, somewhere, will seize on something he says and create from it some kind of complaint. The people who still say he wasn't born on U.S. soil, for example, will haul out a legion of fine-toothed combs to find something that they can use, and there will be a lawyer willing to handle their claim. Such a lawsuit would undoubtedly fail, but its mere existence in our current swamp of political acrimony would cause damage enough. Even worse, should some kind of impeachable offense be found in a potential deposition and a claim based on it succeed in removing President Obama from office, we will face the gory reality of the phrase "Joseph Biden, President of the United States" being real somewhere outside Joltin's Joe's r.e.m. sleep.
So please, if you are a praying person, offer up some that U.S. District Judge James Zagel kicks this request to the litigational curb, or that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts shows the wisdom that uncharacteristically deserted his predecessor William Rehnquist in 1997. The Rehnquist court's go-ahead on Paula Jones' lawsuit is a contender for the worst Supreme Court ruling that doesn't have "Dred Scott" in its title, and Lord knows it doesn't need a partner.
And I'm only sort of kidding about the praying thing.