"Grandfatherly" is probably not a word that comes to mind when most people recall George Ryan or his long political tenure in Illinois. So the image invoked by ex-Gov. Jim Thompson of Ryan as a gentle old man surrounded by his beaming grandchildren upon his return to his Kankakee home Wednesday may seem a bit hard to reconcile. But only the most coldhearted could fail to feel some sympathy for the elderly former governor as he emerges from prison.
Ryan has, as Thompson also said, endured much in the five and a half years since he entered the federal penitentiary system after being convicted of corruption. His wife of 55 years suffered a prolonged illness without him at her side and died. He lost his brother. He lost his pension. Although he's become something of a celebrity in the anti-death penalty movement, his political reputation is in ruins.
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This is strong medicine, and at various times throughout his incarceration, Ryan has appeared to indicate that he now. after years of denying he had ever done anything wrong, gets the message. He has expressed remorse -- including to the Willis family, who lost six children in a crash caused by a truck driver who got his license through a bribe while Ryan was secretary of state -- and he claimed he now understands how his behaviors contributed to the state's pay-for-play culture.
Maybe. But we wish we could be more confident, not only in Ryan's rehabilitation -- which, after all, now is a matter of his private business, not that of the state -- but also in that of the political environment that survives him.
That the governor who followed him into office -- on a campaign of changing "business as usual" in Springfield -- also followed him into prison, and on similar charges, is not a good sign. But neither is the fact that lawmakers stubbornly refuse to eliminate a campaign finance law loophole that allows legislative leaders to contribute as much as they want to candidates within their parties. Nor is the fact that, in spite of yet another round of credit downgrades and the potential for still more, their sense of urgency in solving the pension problem and getting the state's finances in order is less than, well, urgent.
This latter point has more to do with incompetence than corruption, of course. Yet, as a former governor exits prison, one would like to say that things have changed since he went in. The convict is humbled and renewed. The circumstances he was able to exploit for his personal gain have changed. The attitudes that led to his downfall and characterized his era of influence are gone. A mood of optimism and resolve has taken over.
But none of that is true. Instead of emerging as a voice for responsibility and honesty in government, Ryan appears poised to take on the persona of celebrated anti-death penalty crusader. New campaign finance laws are in place, but few people have much faith in them. The mood of government, the confidence of the people, these may actually be worse today than when Ryan entered prison in 2007.
George Ryan is returned to us with a grandfatherly new image, but the crass and broken government he was a part of remains. We are pleased if he has personally learned his lessons. We long for the time when the rest of our leaders will be able to say the same.