Commentary Magazine


Where Is the Transparency?

One part of Barack Obama’s reformer image — his devotion to public financing — has gone by the wayside. But what about transparency, the favorite buzzword of reformers? You will recall how his campaign bashed Hillary Clinton for months for failure to open up the records on the Clinton Library donors and the Clintons’ taxes. But what about Obama’s own records?

Yes, he did share some tax returns. But not his actual medical records. And this reminds me that his bar application, which contains a full accounting of ethical and legal issues, remains hidden from view. And what about his state senate records, of which he claims there is not a scrap of paper, anywhere? Even the precise clients he represented as a lawyer, including the extent of his work for Tony Rezko, remain shrouded from view. As the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

But Obama’s ties with Rezko go beyond those two real estate sales and the political support, the Sun-Times found. Obama was an attorney with a small Chicago law firm — Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland — that helped Rezmar get more than $43 million in government funding to rehab 15 of their 30 apartment buildings for the poor. Just what legal work — and how much — Obama did on those deals is unknown. His campaign staff acknowledges he worked on some of them. But the Rezmar-related work amounted to just five hours over the six years it said Obama was affiliated with the law firm, the staff said in an e-mail in February. Obama, however, was associated with the firm for more than nine years, his staff acknowledged Sunday in an e-mail response to questions submitted March 14 by the Sun-Times. They didn’t say what deals he worked on — or how much work he did.

This leads to two conclusions. First, we have very little documentary information about Obama’s two primary jobs before coming to the Senate in 2004: lawyer and state senator. For someone who clubbed the Clintons for over a year about disclosure he has been forced to cough up virtually nothing which might reveal information critical to evaluating his claims to be a reformer and to understanding how he operated as a state legislator for twelve years. (Remember how he hammered away for those Clinton White House logs?) Second, regardless of what might be revealed there is a broader issue, which seems to fall within the same “but not me” exception as public financing. How transparent is Obama when it comes to his own conduct and records? Just as we have for public financing we are apparently about to set a new standard for candidates — turn over nothing and demand your competitors turn over everything.

The media with their newfound sense of indignation about Obama’s double-standards as well as some of those good government groups so despondent over his decision to renege on public financing might begin to press him on transparency. In short, for the candidate with the thinnest record of any recent major party nominee, it is time to ask why do we know so little about even that meager record.