On Veterans Day, George Ryan again is taking orders

Published: 11/12/2007 12:01 AM

It's been more than 50 years since George Ryan was available for latrine duty.

When he was discharged from the Army in 1956, Mr. Ryan probably figured that his days of forced labor were over.

But on this official Veterans Day, the former governor of Illinois is under orders to clean toilets, swab floors, wash dishes or do something else to make himself useful while behind bars.

Today is the first of many holidays that George Ryan will spend at the federal prison in Oxford, Wisc., where he has been sentenced to six years for public corruption. Certainly the upcoming Thanksgiving Day, Christmas and New Year's will be particularly harsh for Ryan. But I'm sure today Ryan is experiencing something that he hasn't in decades: taking orders.

For those who are incarcerated in that minimum-security prison camp, it has been described as a military-style existence. For former Gov. Ryan, it may be even worse than the two years he spent in the U.S. Army after being drafted in 1954.

When Private Ryan finished basic training, he was sent to Korea for about 13 months. The Korean War had ended a year earlier and while there were still hostilities, there was not hostile fighting.

According to the little information available about Ryan's military service, he was apparently put in charge of a pharmacy on an Army base so he could use his civilian training.

After Ryan got out of the service and worked at a family pharmacy in Kankakee, he set his sights on politics. Although he hadn't filled a prescription in years, even as governor Mr. Ryan enjoyed referring to himself as just a small-town druggist.

Maybe he'll get a job as a clerk in the prison drug store while he is at Oxford, but whatever Ryan does it should not be considered a happy occasion for any of us. As just the latest Illinois governor to go away, with the current governor at risk of indictment, and following a rich history of political corruption in Illinois, George Ryan's case is an embarrassment to those who voted for him and those who lived here under him. In other words: all of us.

When he was running for governor in 1998, Mr. Ryan vigorously backed passage of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban burning the American flag.

"Desecrating our flag is a slap in the face to every veteran that ever walked a battle to protect our rights and our freedoms," said Ryan, who fancied himself as a gruff old war vet.

I hope he thinks of that statement as he lay in his bunk staring at the ceiling tonight, having huffed and puffed to hoist himself onto the top bed which is reserved for prison newbies.

There are many ways to desecrate the flag. One of them is to sell out your public office. When Ryan raised his right hand and took the state oath in 1999, he solemnly swore to "faithfully discharge the duties of the Office of Governor to the best of my ability."

By violating that oath, Ryan desecrated the flag.

Another method of soiling the Stars and Stripes is to defy the jury system that duly convicted you, by claiming to be innocent even as you serve your term.

Last week, the night before he reported to prison, Ryan stood on his front lawn in Kankakee and read a statement.

"I regret the circumstances that bring me here tonight," he said, as if he had been blindfolded, abducted and dropped in a cornfield by extra-terrestrials or Democrats.

"I'm innocent and I intend to prove that," said Ryan, who must be suffering from short-term memory loss because that was what his trial was for and he lost.

In his statement, the former governor thanked both DePaul and Northwestern Universities' centers for wrongful convictions.

It must have come as quite a surprise to both universities to learn that they were funding organizations aimed at helping crooked politicians. I thought they were trying to help people wrongfully convicted of murder who had been sentenced to death.

Both of those organizations of course were giddy when Mr. Ryan cleared out Illinois death row in his final act as governor. The emancipation, which made Ryan the darling of the anti-death penalty movement and a Nobel candidate, had nothing to do with politics or his own criminal problems, the governor assured us at the time.

And as someone who was almost a member of the Greatest Generation, who are we not to believe him?