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Opinion: Welcome to Payola World!

Former Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell made headlines for the $800,000 in cash stuffed in shoeboxes found when he died. For more than half a century, a Powell-established $250,000 trust sustained his legacy. But the account that maintained his birthplace as a museum will soon run dry.
AP
Former Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell made headlines for the $800,000 in cash stuffed in shoeboxes found when he died. For more than half a century, a Powell-established $250,000 trust sustained his legacy. But the account that maintained his birthplace as a museum will soon run dry.

How do you honor a legend?

Paul Powell was an Illinois Secretary of State, and a former Speaker of the state house, who famously picked up the scent of political deals and said, "I can smell the meat a-cookin'!"

He left behind plenty of smokin' pork. When Paul Powell died in 1970, about $800,000 in cash was discovered in shoeboxes and attaché cases in his closets. He also had a million dollars in racetrack stock. Horse racing is a state-regulated enterprise.

I just stored baseball cards in shoeboxes. Why didn't I think bigger?

The IRS, lawyers, and the state of Illinois took their cut of Paul Powell's ill-gotten gains, and the rest of his estate has been used to maintain his home in southern Illinois as a museum for his memorabilia (shoeboxes not included). But that fund has run out. Paul Powell's home may go on the block.

A University of Illinois study finds that despite all vows to abolish shoebox and pork-barrel politics, Chicago remains the most corrupt city in the nation, judged by the per capita number of indicted officials. Illinois is the third most corrupt state.

Four of Illinois's last ten governors have gone to prison, three Democrats and one Republican. It says "LAND OF LINCOLN" on state license plates, but perhaps there should be fine print below: "HANDMADE BY A FORMER GOVERNOR."

I will attest, as a son of Illinois, that many citizens are appalled by corruption. Yet we can also be slightly proud. When the Cubs, Bulls, and Bears have losing seasons, in the league of political corruption, we're still champs!

Maybe Illinois should just embrace its history and establish the site of Paul Powell's old home in southern Illinois as a theme park for political profiteering. Call it Payola World!

Instead of a ride called Pirates of the Caribbean — Pirates of Vienna, Illinois!

Children can pose behind iron bars, alongside AI reproductions of convicted public officials. "Smile, kids! Say, 'shoeboxes!'"

Disney theme parks offer a Princess Experience, where children in tiaras can meet actors costumed as Jasmine, Belle, or Elsa. Why not a Governor's Experience at Payola World? Families can slip cash to someone in a suit with perfect hair, who can tell them, as Governor Rod Blagojevich once said about the chance to appoint someone to an open U.S. Senate seat, "I've got this thing and it's f***ing golden!"

And of course they'll be a restaurant at Payola World. You know what they have to serve: pork!

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.