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In a sequence of events that neatly captures the contradictions of Barack Obama’s rise through Illinois politics, a phone call he made three months ago to urge passage of a state ethics bill indirectly contributed to the downfall of a fellow Democrat he twice supported, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
Mr. Obama placed the call to his political mentor, Emil Jones Jr., president of the Illinois Senate. Mr. Jones was a critic of the legislation, which sought to curb the influence of money in politics, as was Mr. Blagojevich, who had vetoed it. But after the call from Mr. Obama, the Senate overrode the veto, prompting the governor to press state contractors for campaign contributions before the law’s restrictions could take effect on Jan. 1, prosecutors say.
Tipped off to Mr. Blagojevich’s efforts, federal agents obtained wiretaps for his phones and eventually overheard what they say was scheming by the governor to profit from his appointment of a successor to the United States Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Obama. One official whose name has long been mentioned in Chicago political circles as a potential successor is Mr. Jones, a machine politician who was viewed as a roadblock to ethics reform but is friendly with Mr. Obama.
Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.
By the time Mr. Obama intervened on the ethics measure, his relationship with Mr. Blagojevich, always defined more by political proximity than by personal chemistry, had cooled as the governor became increasingly engulfed in legal troubles. There is nothing in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday to indicate that Mr. Obama knew anything about plans to seek money and favors in exchange for his Senate seat; he has never been implicated in any other “pay to play” cases that have emerged from the long-running investigation of the Blagojevich administration.