Being Rod Blagojevich

By Thomas, Suzanne Smalley Evan; Wolffe, Richard | Newsweek, December 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

Being Rod Blagojevich


Thomas, Suzanne Smalley Evan, Wolffe, Richard, Newsweek


There's no way to know why he sees politics as he does. But few seem surprised.

Rod blagojevich tells his friends that he has two heroes, richard nixon and elvis. it's hard to know what Nixon and Elvis have in common with a Democratic hack politician, aside from paranoia, delusions of grandeur and, in the case of Elvis and Blagojevich, at least, quite a head of hair. But politicians say and do strange things. Why did former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who has a beautiful and loyal wife, hire hookers? Why did Bill Clinton have sexual relations with an intern next door to the Oval Office? (Why did Napoleon invade Russia? Why would anyone start World War I? The list goes on --) Last week, from the political wards of Chicago to the green rooms of talk TV shows, the experts pop-psycholo-

gized. Was the governor of Illinois wacko? Or really wacko? It seemed there was evidence to support both conclusions, starting with his delusional behavior in the days leading to his arrest. On Friday, Dec. 5, the Chicago Tribune printed that the Feds were wiretapping the governor as part of a long-term investigation into state corruption. On Monday Blagojevich told reporters, "If anybody wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead." Appearing at a factory sit-in, the governor, whose approval rating then stood at 13 percent, appeared unconcerned: "I don't believe there's any cloud that hangs over me. I think there's nothing but sunshine hanging over me." At 6 a.m. Tuesday, when the FBI woke the governor to tell him that agents were waiting outside with a warrant for his arrest, Blagojevich reportedly responded that it must be some kind of a joke.

The politics of Illinois suggest that, when it comes to American exceptionalism, the Good Lord has a sense of humor, a mischievous one. Illinois is the state that gave us Abraham Lincoln, "Honest Abe," and, if current expectations are to be believed, his reincarnation in Barack Obama. It is also the state where governors seem to get indicted about once a decade (four of the last eight have been; Blagojevich won by vowing reform after his predecessor, George Ryan, was convicted of racketeering). Yet with darkness comes light: the federal prosecutor who exposed Blagojevich's alleged misdeeds seems like a blend of Eliot Ness and the former altar boy he was. Patrick Fitzgerald told reporters that he stepped in to stop a "crime spree" in the governor's office that would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave." Blagojevich's chief of staff, John Harris, was arrested too; he resigned last week. And last Friday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the state's Supreme Court for permission to seek the temporary removal of the governor. (A spokesman for the governor, Lucio Guerrero, said he could not comment on the charges; he referred newsweek to a Blagojevich lawyer, who did not return calls seeking comment.)

Illinois has a tradition of "pay to play" politics--no campaign contribution, no government contracts or favors. But then so do many states and, for that matter, Congress (where the custom is more politely referred to as "access"). What Blagojevich is accused of doing is flaunting his greed--on tape. According to the transcript of the federal wiretap, he announced, "I want to make money" and tried to shake down, among others, an official at a children's hospital (threatening to withhold $8 million for pediatric care until the official donated $50,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund). Fitzgerald says he hung a for sale sign on the appointment of a replacement for Obama's vacated Senate seat. "I've got this thing, it's [expletive] golden, and uh, uh, I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing. I'm not gonna do it. And, I can always use it. I can parachute me there," the governor tells an aide, according to the transcript, contemplating the idea of appointing himself to duck threats of impeachment from the state legislature.

Mud splattered on some nice suits. …

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