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By Dennis Byrne

President Bush faces a major test of his integrity when, or if, he ever gets around to reappointing Patrick Fitzgerald as U.S. Attorney in Chicago.

The nation needs to know that Bush's failure to back Fitzgerald will betray a gapping hole in the conscience of the president. While most of America may think of Fitzgerald as the aggressive prosecutor in the Valerie Plame affair and the bombing of the World Trade Center, those of us in Chicago have a closer view of the man.

He is one of the few government officials left in Chicago and Illinois that loathes corruption, and who is in a position to do something about as the U.S. Attorney for Northern Illinois.

In that role, he has put away former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and a host of other grafters. He is scrutinizing current Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration for its hiring practices. And he is hot on the trail of the corruption that pervades Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's City Hall. Score another for Fitzgerald as a federal jury this week convicted Daley's patronage chief and three other men on charges that they engaged in an elaborate and long-running scheme to reward the mayor's campaign workers with choice jobs.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, among others, labors under the impression that this part of the city's Democratic "machine" was dead, but the scheme, which violated a federal court order, long has provided Daley and his allies with an army of faithful doorbell ringers on election day. Patronage is very much alive and is every bit an essential part of the Chicago machine as the more lucrative awarding of rich consulting, construction and franchise contracts to favored relatives and friends. In Chicago, many folks consider this "soft graft," which makes the "city that works" work.

And so, Daley, is named the nation's best mayor and dines with President George W. Bush the evening of his special 60th birthday. Bush and some urban observers dote on Daley as if he was the genius who almost single-handedly turned a stinking swamp into a city beautiful. Cities elsewhere would be making a huge mistake to think so, as incompetent no-shows, for example, fill jobs critically important to public safety. And citizens and taxpayers are cheated.

Which brings us back to Fitzgerald. Without him, who will be left to chase the snakes out of Chicago and into the federal pen? Certainly no one who is a part of the interlocking Republocratic party that runs most of what passes for government in Chicago and Illinois.

So at Bush's Friday press conference in Chicago, while other reporters were asking him weighty questions about global and national matters, he was surprised by a local reporter's question: Does he plan to reappoint Fitzgerald? According to the Chicago Tribune's Michael Tackett, Bush said he hadn't really thought about that, then "recovered by saying that the decision would fall to Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales." Then Bush made a startling admission: even though Fitzgerald's Chicago investigations have received national coverage, Bush, who said he wanted to get to Chicago to experience more of the "real" America, "allowed that he hadn't paid much attention to Fitzgerald's investigations...."

That should ferment some happy bubbles in the political cesspool that is Chicago. The president's inattention will be welcomed by the Chicago political establishment, which despises Fitzgerald and opposed him from the start, when he was nominated by former Illinois Sen. Peter (no relation) Fitzgerald, widely considered to be renegade (i.e., he refused to take orders from the goniffs). In a word, establishment Republicans and Democrats want him gone.

And there's good reason to think he might be, aside from the president's non-assurance. One of the chief practitioners of Illinois establishment politics is Republican operative Bob Kjellander, who brags (whether true or not) about his friendship with Bush chief political strategist, Karl Rove. Despite Kjellander's engineering Bush defeats in Illinois and other Midwest states, the White House (Rove?) thought he was pretty hot stuff and brought him to the Beltway where he is engineering who knows what political disaster.

Kjellander also will be credited with the coming GOP election disaster in Illinois, thanks to his help in selecting state Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka to run against incumbent Blagojevich. She's a dear lady, a treasured "moderate," but not a gusty independent willing to stand up to the political establishment.

The point is that Kjellander (pronounced Shelander), a Republican national committeeman who has received $800,000 in unexplained fees through a state bond-borrowing deal engineered by Democrat Blagojevich, is no fan of Fitzgerald's either. No one, in other words, in the political establishment in Chicago or Washington, is pushing for Fitzgerald's reappointment.

This is more than a parochial political battle. It bears watching by a nation that has become disgusted by corruption on the federal level. Chicago and Illinois have reached a critical stage. On one side are the co-joined interests of both political parties, and on the other is the much smaller group who value honesty and good government. Their only standard-bearer is Patrick Fitzgerald.

Bush's failure to reappoint Fitzgerald would tell the nation that he doesn't mind the kind of corruption that infects Chicago and Illinois. It will be the kind of surrender to the most destructive kind of politics that have disgusted so many Americans.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist and freelance writer. Email:

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