"Real" friends are needed for perspective. The statehouse (or Congress, or city hall, or anywhere else where politicians regularly congregate) is an insulated society, with its own rules, its own gossip, and - most importantly for this analysis - its own definitions of right and wrong.
A real friend will tell you if you're screwing up, or if you've taken the wrong side in a battle. A political friend is also a fellow insider, so he or she, being an insider, usually has an angle. Even if that person is a "close" friend, the political friend can't truly be trusted to say everything that's on his or her mind.
There are rare exceptions, of course, but the general rule is that a "real" friend will think of your interests while a political friend looks out for himself.
And that's where George Ryan comes in. Newly former Illinois Governor Ryan has been in this business so long that he has no "real" friends left. His political friends have completely supplanted his real friends. His house in Kankakee has been virtually unoccupied for years. None of the old gang comes around.
A news story over the weekend reminded me that Ryan has often treated many of his political friends like they were his real friends, but they didn't return the favor.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the day Donald Udstuen resigned in disgrace from his big-time job with the Illinois State Medical Society, Ryan called him at home to give him a friendly pep talk. It was classic George - making sure a suddenly down-and-out buddy was doing okay. Udstuen would eventually be charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from illegal secretary-of-state contracts and leases. He's not one of the good guys, but Ryan considered him a close friend.
So, how did Udstuen return Ryan's kind gesture? As soon as he found out that George had called his home, Udstuen informed the FBI and then allowed the feds to listen to his return call to the governor. Ryan didn't say anything incriminating, however - suggesting either that he's craftier than the feds thought or that he really didn't know about this stuff.
A real friend wouldn't have taken the kickbacks in the first place. A real friend would have told Ryan about the corruption, or, if Ryan was involved, would have tried to talk him out of it. And a real friend wouldn't have turned so completely rat that he would allow the FBI to listen to that phone call.
But, none of this is really Udstuen's fault. He is what he is.
I blame George Ryan for his failure to have anyone around him (except Mrs. Ryan) whom he could trust. There was no old buddy who wasn't beholden to him who could grab George by the shoulders and tell him that his alleged friends were a bunch of wannabe gangsters and silk-shirted thieves with expensive mistresses.
One of my oldest friends sent me an e-mail right after the above was published in my daily newsletter. Here's what he had to say:
"This is probably true, but should George really have needed someone to spell it out for him? He's not exactly Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. You and I combined have a tiny fraction of George's Springfield experience, yet we easily recognize silk-shirted thieves when we see them, and we can make some remarkably accurate assumptions about the things they do to afford their silk shirts and mistresses. You don't need a weatherman, etc.
"There have been some constants over the long course of George's political life. He's always been smart, cunning, tough, loyal ... and corrupt. All those things helped get him to the top of a ruthless, dirty game, but that last one finally caught up with him at the end of the day (literally)."
So far, the feds have yet to allege any illegal actions by Ryan, except for maybe not reporting some minor income on his tax returns. We'll find out soon enough if my friend is right about Ryan's allegedly corrupt nature. But, in the meantime, everyone in politics ought to learn a valuable lesson about the real dangers of having nothing but political friends.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).