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The [Rezko] Papers

UPDATE MARCH 19

We learned a little bit more about Barack Obama's meetings with the city's editorial boards to discuss Tony Rezko on Chicago Tonight Monday night. Carol Marin moderated. The panel: Investigative reporter David Jackson and deputy editorial page editor John McCormick from the Tribune and reporter Chris Fusco and editorial writer Deborah Douglas from the Sun-Times. Let's take a look.

*

(Direct quotes will be in quote marks; the rest is from my notes but pretty close to verbatim.)

MARIN: Why did Obama do this now?

JACKSON: The Tribune "was preparing to run a story in Sunday's paper that listed the unanswered questions."

FUSCO: The Sun-Times has been asking questions since November 2006. How much money has Tony Rezko raised for you? When the Obama campaign said $50,000 to $60,000, "you just sit there and realize, that cannot be right."

MCCORMICK: There were 36 Tribune people in that room. Ten editorial board members. David Jackson asked 80 percent of the questions.

DOUGLAS: He came off like a regular, ordinary person . . . he seemed like he was one of us . . . you could sit there, you could listen to him all day.

MCCORMICK: He answered every question that we put to him.

JACKSON: The question that lingers for Wright . . . he was there for 20 years as a seamless part of the community, "you say you never heard language like this?"

DOUGLAS: "That was the only part that struck me as being possibly disingenuous [that he would have pulled Wright aside and talked to him about it if he had heard that kind of language]. I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. . . . [Wright] gives voice to a common black experience . . . black oratory style . . . uses fiery, incendiary language.

FUSCO: There are still some questions that I think are unanswered [about Rezko]. [Reads a quote from Obama], it's indicative, talking about Rezko in a way that reflects positively about himself . . . thinks he will do the same with Wright . . . make himself look good.

MARIN: Did he answer all the questions that needed to be answered?

JACKSON: "He answered as best he could . . . I was struck by the number of points where he couldn't answer questions . . . he can't say how many fundraisers Rezko held for him, which is surprising given Obama's posture of transparency in campaign finance and reform . . . some things have changed . . .now e've learned that Tony Rezko raised a lot more than Obama had previously acknowledged and that he knew in early spring 2005 that Tony Rezko had come under a federal grand jury investigation and [Obama] asked him about this and Rezko assured him nothing would come from this . . . he'd never been specific about that before, and we'd been trying to elicit that for a long time."

MARIN: Has Obama disposed of these issues?

JACKSON: I don't think you can say he's disposed of these issues, but that is what he tried to do.

DOUGLAS: It really is refreshing to have had that experience.

FUSCO: I don't know that anything is ever disposed of in a presidential campaign . . . McCain will be going against a guy who lost a congressional race to Bobby Rush not long ago.

MCCORMICK: The campaign . . . thought they could ride it out.

DOUGLAS: The malcontents and Obama-haters in the blogosphere will keep this alive.

MARIN: And maybe reporters, too.

*

Original post March 17:

It's mighty nice of the Chicago media to give Barack Obama a largely clean bill of health on his relationship with Tony Rezko now that he's held strategic meetings with editorial boards of the Tribune and Sun-Times, but as near as I can tell, every media outlet in the city missed the story. Let's try it this way:

"Barack Obama acknowledged in meetings with the city's two editorial boards that he had not been truthful in describing his knowledge of Tony Rezko's legal problems when he became entangled in a real estate deal with the political fixer involving Obama's South Side mansion."

Let's take a look at what we really learned over the weekend.

1. Obama revealed that, contrary to his insistence that he had no idea that Rezko was the subject of a federal investigation, including recent statements to national news organizations, he actually asked Rezko about the allegations that had made their way into media reports.

The Tribune knew this going in; its endorsement of Obama in the Illinois primary said: "Obama's assertion in network TV interviews last week that nobody had any indications Rezko was engaging in wrongdoing strained credulity."

Among those assertions:

* "Nobody had an inkling that he was involved in any problems," Obama told CBS's Harry Smith.

* "Nobody had any indications that he was engaging in wrongdoing," Obama told ABC's Diane Sawyer.

The Sun-Times knew this as well.

On Friday, though, Obama did an about-face.

"The senator said that at the time, in early 2005, he was aware of the growing controversies surrounding Rezko's dealings with state and city government," the Tribune reports. "In March 2005, for example, city officials alleged that a minority contractor at O'Hare International Airport acted as a front for a Rezko firm. 'I started reading the reports that were surfacing,' Obama said. Rezko 'gave me assurances that this wasn't a problem.' And, Obama added, 'at that time, the news around Rezko's problems had not elevated to the levels that they did later."

So, contrary to "nobody" having "any inkling" about allegations surfacing about Rezko, Obama himself was quite aware - he even talked to Rezko about it. Whether he was satisfied with Rezko's answers is besides the point, though it strains credulity in its own way.

2. Obama reiterated that Rezko never asked him for a favor. I haven't read the full transcripts or listened to the audio yet, but in their news articles there is is no indication that either paper asked Obama about this New York Times report:

"While Mr. Obama was running for the Senate, Mr. Rezko was also raising money for a huge development in the South Loop of Chicago, often playing host to dinners in a private room at the Four Seasons Hotel here.

"Former Rezko associates said that Governor Blagojevich attended one of the dinners, and that at Mr. Rezko's request, Mr. Obama dropped in at one for Middle Eastern bankers in early 2004, just as he was starting to pull ahead in the Senate primary. The visits, Mr. Rezko's partners said, helped impress foreign guests.

"'I remember that he had been on the campaign trail, and he was completely wiped out and exhausted,' said Anthony Licata, a lawyer who represented Mr. Rezko on real estate deals. 'My recollection is that he drank ice tea, and he talked about how he was really making progress, and we were all excited to see him.'"

Or this, also from the same Times report:

"Rita Rezko paid $625,000 to outbid others for the lot and later sold the Obama's one-sixth of that land land, for $104,500.

"After the Chicago Tribune reported the transactions last November, Mr. Obama said he had acted ethically, though it had been a mistake to let Mr. Rezko do anything that could be seen as a favor.

"The disclosure came four days before Michelle Obama was to appear as a special guest at a charity fashion show organized by Mrs. Rezko. Mrs. Obama attended, though others there said it seemed a bit awkward."

Which certainly doesn't sound like the biggest deal in the world, but it does indicate how close the couples appeared to be.

And, of course, there is this June 2007 report from the Sun-Times:

"Obama's letters for Rezko
NOT A FAVOR? | As a state senator, he went to bat for now-indicted developer's deal

"As a state senator, Barack Obama wrote letters to city and state officials supporting his political patron Tony Rezko's successful bid to get more than $14 million from taxpayers to build apartments for senior citizens.

"The deal included $855,000 in development fees for Rezko and his partner, Allison S. Davis, Obama's former boss, according to records from the project, which was four blocks outside Obama's state Senate district."

[The Sun-Times account on Sunday has Obama briefly defending a 1998 letter he wrote for a Rezko development.]

As for the reverse, well, when Obama says "He never did any favors for me, other than obviously supporting my campaigns," that kind of elides the point, doesn't it?

3. The media did bite on the disclosure that Rezko contributed more money to Obama than previously acknowledged. David Axelrod knew they would, and that's why they've dripped out these continual discoveries of more Rezko dollars. But it's really the least interesting and important of the revelations. The real story here is why the campaign has been disingenuous about the contributions, not the contributions themselves.

After all, the Sun-Times reported last June that "During his 12 years in politics, Sen. Barack Obama has received nearly three times more campaign cash from indicted businessman Tony Rezko and his associates than he has publicly acknowledged, the Chicago Sun-Times has found.

As the latest Sun-Times report says, "Obama acknowledged that Rezko had raised $250,000 for him - about $100,000 more than had previously been disclosed and about five times more than Obama conveyed during a November 2006 question-and-answer exchange with the Sun-Times."

The Obama campaign uses its own disclosures to change the story line when it wants to, and it works. There is little harm in headlines about the senator giving more money to charity.

Media Conceit
Like with the campaign contributions, Obama has continually insisted he has told all there is to know about his relationship with Tony Rezko, and yet he continues to reveal more. Still, he kept up the conceit in his meetings with the newspapers, acting as if it was the media who just didn't get it.

"I want to start by talking about my house purchase and Tony Rezko, because that's something that I know you guys have editorialized on, suggesting that we haven't provided you guys enough information," he told the Trib.

"We want to put the sense that we're not being forthcoming behind us as quickly as possible," he told the Sun-Times.

Of course, that sense and suggestion comes form the fact that the campaign hasn't, in reality, been forthcoming.

And it largely got away with it until Obama's disastrous Texas press conference amid the start of the Rezko trial. Obama's brain trust made a strategic decision. But it wasn't just to let it all hang out. It was to do so in a way that would snow the media. How?

By meeting with jam-packed editorial boards instead of the investigative reporters whose interview requests have gone unanswered for the better part of a year. Like Mayor Daley's press conferences, the appearance of access is overwhelmed by the extreme difficulty of following a line of knowledgeable questions coming from a large group.

The papers' editorial boards should have set aside their egos and insisted that any meetings take place with their investigative reporters, not the folks who have already endorsed Obama.

That aside, Obama's assertion of having revealed all was also proven disingenuous.

"Obama disclosed Friday that someone else already had an option to buy the garden lot," the Tribune account says. "But he said Rezko took over that option after Rezko learned Obama was bidding for the house. Obama said he knew next to nothing about those transactions and does not recall when he learened that Rezko was interested in buying the side lot - or even how Rezko learned it was for sale."

The Sun-Times account has it a little different:

"After touring the Kenwood home with Rezko [I think the paper means Obama here] and his real estate agent, Rezko 'expressed some interest potentially in purchasing the lot,'" Obama said.

"My basic view at that time was having somebody who I knew, a friend of mine, who would be developing the lot if he could, would be great. It would be somebody who we know."

Bingo.

"In his first accounts of the purchase, Obama did not divulge that tour," the Tribune recalls. "He said Friday that he simply didn't feel the information was salient and insisted the tour didn't mean he and Rezko coordinated their purchases."

He didn't think it was salient. And if you believe that, I've got a side lot in Brooklyn to sell you.

Pundit Patrol
The pundits are almost uniformly pleased. Obama got his "clears the air" headlines. But there is some nuance underneath those headlines.

* "I'm too old to believe in fairy tales," John Kass writes.

"Obama said he asked Rezko about the federal investigations, if Rezko had any problems, and Tony said no, and Barack believed it . . . So I left half-satisfied, thinking Obama more naive than crooked.

More interesting was this passage from Kass:

"'I know there are those, like John Kass, who would like me to decry Chicago politics more frequently.'

"Just the corrupt parts, I said.

"'I'll leave that to his editorial commentary, but I think it's fair to say that I have conducted myself in my public office with great care and high ethical standards."

Isn't decrying the old politics the centerpiece of his campaign? He's not asking Americans to leave change to newspaper columnists. He's asking them to do something he himself failed to do in elected office here in Chicago.

* "I don't think anybody at this newspaper can make the claim that he hasn't answered our inquiries," Mark Brown writes, though he then cites some outstanding questions.

"He patiently took on all comers, and, when it was over, the biggest question was why he hadn't done so sooner."

Yes. Because he's clearly had a strategy.

"During the last year, Obama has used his cooperation with one news organization or another on the Rezko story to try to immunize himself from the inquiries of others. He should not be allowed to use his meeting with the Sun-Times - and a similar get-together at the Tribune - to wave off questions from others now about Rezko and the house."

* "Reporters have tried for more than a year now to get Obama to explain in detail his relationship with his friend and campaign fund-raiser, but he has resisted as Rezko became more radioactive with every passing day," Carol Marin writes, adding that she finds the senator's answers perfectly plausible.

* "Obama should have had last Friday's discussion 16 months ago," the Tribune editorial page says. "Asked why he didn't, he spoke of learning, uncomfortably, what it's like to live in a fishbowl. That made him perhaps too eager to protect personal information - too eager to 'control the narrative.'"

*

Perhaps. But I think a combination of factors can be pieced together from all of this that might explain what has happened. Barack Obama has described Tony Rezko as his political godfather. Rezko has been a patron, a friend, and Obama's chief money man for the length of his public career. Kass finds Obama more naive than venal, and Marin remarks on the loyalty he appears to feel toward a man he still calls his friend. Obama got mixed up with a typical Chicago political character in a way that cuts across the image he is now presenting to the rest of the country, and made grievous ethical errors - in part, let's face it, because that house is gorgeous. And Obama has found it very hard to throw his friend under the bus. Along the way, he has shown a penchant for political strategy and limiting information and press access that also cuts across the image he seeks to portray on the campaign trail. His problem with Rev. Jeremiah Wright is similar; and let's not forget the kinky stock investments he found himself wrapped up in.

For a guy touting his role writing ethics legislation - and the importance of judgement - Obama's thin track record isn't exactly encouraging. Given that thin record, the Rezko story is the best prism available to evaluate how Obama meets certain tests. Maybe he's learned his lesson, but I don't think we can give him a passing grade.

-

See Obamathon for more Beachwood coverage of the man, the myth, and the legend.




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Posted on March 19, 2008


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