Fighting for his legacy
POST-DISPATCH SPRINGFIELD BUREAU
OXFORD, Wis. — A day after defiantly proclaiming his innocence, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan's final act as a free man last week was to switch cars en route from Chicago to Wisconsin, then slip in the back way to a federal prison here — thus avoiding a gauntlet of television cameras that waited to record his arrival.
The maneuver left some wondering why he would bother with such stealth at this point. Ryan stands convicted of fleecing his state while holding its highest office. He will probably be in prison until he's at least 79 years old. His political career is, without question, over.
What's a few more unflattering pictures?
The answer may have to do with a subject that clearly has been central in Ryan's mind since long before he was convicted last year: legacy.
"You don't run for elective office if you don't have a significant ego … (and) legacy is important from the standpoint of ego satisfaction," said Mike Lawrence, a former top aide to ex-Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar. "All of them want to be remembered for what they accomplished in public office.
"A picture of a governor going to prison is a lasting impression," added Lawrence, who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "It overshadows other things people might remember."
Ryan today is viewed by many of his fellow Illinoisans as a crook who cashed in on his influence from the governor's office. But outside his home state, many see him as a heroic opponent of the death penalty. He has long made it obvious that he cares deeply about which of those two versions of his life gets top billing in the history books.
Even as federal prosecutors were circling at the end of his term as governor, Ryan used his final days in office, in January 2003, to commute the sentence of every inmate on Illinois' death row, making headlines around the world.
By 2005 — as a federal jury was being assembled in Chicago to consider charges that Ryan sold government influence to friends and cronies in exchange for gifts, trips and cash — death-penalty opponents were submitting Ryan's name to officials in Norway seeking to have him considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for his continuing anti-death-penalty work.
Ryan's supporters say his Illinois death penalty moratorium, which still stands, spurred unprecedented national soul-searching about the death penalty, and even paved the way for the U.S. Supreme Court's current review of the constitutionality of lethal injections.
"When you add it all up, it was George Ryan who really opened up this entire debate about the death penalty in America," said Francis Boyle, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who is once again submitting Ryan's name for a Nobel Prize. "He's a visionary … but obviously, a lot of the media in this state don't see it that way."
Law professor Andrea Lyon of DePaul University in Chicago was so supportive of Ryan's work against capital punishment that she ended up working with the defense in his corruption trial last year.
"Did he play the political game the way it's played? Yes. Is that always seemly? No," Lyon acknowledged last week.
Even so, and even given the fact that Ryan on Wednesday successfully avoided having his arrival at prison recorded for posterity, his legacy may still be doomed.
"If history is a guide," said Lawrence, "Ryan will be will be remembered as a corrupt politician."
That's the lesson in looking back on figures like Richard Nixon, who opened China to the west but is mostly remembered today for resigning the presidency in disgrace. Or 1960s Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, whose groundbreaking national work in race relations was overshadowed by his later conviction for taking bribes while in office.
All indications are that Ryan's successor, too, is thinking about the issue of legacy — and, perhaps, looking at last week's events as a cautionary tale.
Like Ryan and his anti-death-penalty crusade, current Gov. Rod Blagojevich has displayed obsession with a potentially historic policy issue (universal health care). And, like Ryan, Blagojevich has seen the public's attention distracted from his official accomplishments because of federal investigators poking around.
Blagojevich friend and fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko has been indicted for allegedly offering to trade state business for campaign contributions to Blagojevich. Federal prosecutors have confirmed they're investigating alleged hiring fraud within the administration, and the feds also reportedly have subpoenaed records from Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Blagojevich has argued that the alleged crimes were isolated incidents by people acting on their own, and not indicative of a wider criminal pall over his administration.
But Ryan, in his last public appearance before becoming inmate No. 16627-424 at the Federal Correctional Institution at Oxford, Wis., appeared less concerned with the 6 1/2 year prison sentence ahead of him than with the image of himself he was leaving behind.
"To the people of Illinois, I'm not blind to the sentiment that some hold," Ryan told reporters Tuesday night outside his Kankakee home, a much better backdrop, legacy-wise, than the minimum-security prison he would virtually sneak into the next day. "But I want you to know that I did my best."
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