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Blagojevich: Playing Politics Against Sick Children?

When I was in high school, some friends and I would go to Children's Memorial Hospital on the north side of Chicago this time of year to pass out toys and play games with the children there.

It was sorrowful to see children undergoing cancer treatments, with their small, bald heads wrapped in bandages, but joyful to watch those same children smile and laugh. There was always lots of laughing from those small, weary faces, looking startlingly wise.

I've been thinking about those children after U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald presented his charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The allegation that the governor has tried to sell a seat in the Senate to the highest bidder, like hawking a stolen television off the back of a truck, is appalling, even for Illinoisans who have seen three governors — possibly four now — go to prison.

I am a Chicagoan. I know that, as they say in Chicago, "politics ain't beanbag," and that politicians, like any other living, breathing, human beings, trade favors. As Conrad wrote, "He who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered his soul."

I try not to malign anyone, even politicians, as incorruptible. That's like saying people never get hungry or thirsty, or that gravity doesn't apply. The politicians I have gotten to like the most — and they're from both parties — wear their virtue lightly; they know it can be fragile.

If Gov. Blagojevich had appointed someone who President-elect Obama preferred to fill his Senate seat, my Chicago political barometer tells me that Obama — who, remember, is surrounded by people who were assistants to Mayor Richard M. Daley — would gladly find some favor with which to repay him: like repaving the Jefferson Street Bridge in Rockford or inviting Blagojevich to attend a White House prayer breakfast with Scarlett Johansson.

But among the charges Fitzgerald presented this week is that Blagojevich tried to rescind an $8 million contribution the state made to Children's Memorial Hospital, because the hospital's CEO would not make a campaign donation to the governor.

Even the coarsest political bosses usually like to be nice to sick children. Whatever deals they strike or rivals they smite, they like to send turkeys, toys and balloons to the children's hospital.

Fitzgerald said the charges against Blagojevich would make Abraham Lincoln roll over in his grave. I didn't know Lincoln, and Blagojevich deserves his day in court. But I remember Richard J. Daley. And I think if he saw a Chicago pol play politics against sick children, he might sit up and say, "What a bum."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.