June 3, 2023

Rod Man Out

Rod Man Out“This is a sad day for Illinois government. Governor Blagejovich has taken us to a truly new low.”

That was U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (of Scooter Libby fame) decrying the corruption that’s rendered the unpronounceable governor’s office a political SuperFund site that may just have to be fenced off behind a thicket of barbed wire and yellow tape instead of cleaned up. Oh, I don’t know that seems something of a hyperbolic statement. The Governor’s hair might be a new low–honestly, it’s even worse than Donald Trump’s–but his corruption? Please. This is Illinois we’re talking about.

From a strictly academic point-of-view, I suppose we should all be upset about this. Corruption, influence peddling, general wrongdoing. It’s terrible. And tragic, also.

Okay, I tried. I can’t do the Rick From Casablanca moment and pronounce myself, shocked, shocked. This is Illinois politics, and if it weren’t as dirty as Burning Man, that would be news. This is the state that is the Midwestern field office for American political corruption. Hell, since they took down Tammany Hall and Boss Predergast, it’s the undisputed Washington, D.C. of graft. This is a city where columnist Mike Royko once wrote of a particularly crooked police officer whose own friends said of him “He(‘ll) steal a hot stove, and go back inside for the smoke.”

It’s a damned shame that Mike Royko isn’t around to witness the core meltdown of Governor Rod Blagejovich. He would have had such fun. But he wouldn’t have been surprised.

In a 1978 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Royko noted with amused exasperation the naivete of an ERA lobbyist who was frustrated that their bundle of money that they were pouring into advertising and lobbyist fees wasn’t guaranteeing the votes that she wanted. She was aghast at Royko’s suggestion that a smartly-placed $5,000 in the right palm could give the EPA ratification effort at least a little traction.

She didn’t get it. In case the rest of the world didn’t get it either, Royko elaborated, “That’s the problem with the ERA and most do-gooders. They are earnest, diligent, and energetic, but they don’t have much sense.

“Throughout the history of this state, sly people have been getting what they want out of Springfield. They haven’t done it by being honest, earnest, diligent, and energetic…They have done it by throwing a shoebox full of money throgh the transom of a Springfield hotel room.”

She was still incredulous, so just to ram the point home, he consulted a lobbyist friend and told him about the Pollyannaish nature of the woman from the ERA lobby, and their massive $200,000 war chest that they had devoted to Illinois alone. The lobbyist was practically wistful, “For $200,000,” he said. “We’d not only get her the ERA ratified, we could get her a highway.”

I think we’re missing the issue in our indignation over the Governor’s transgressions. (Yes, it’s reprehensible that he’d hold the construction of a children’s hospital hostage until he received proper tribute.) A goldfish is going to swim and a cat is going to lie around and claw the furniture when you aren’t looking. A politician, while hired by the voters to take care of the public’s business, is probably going to prioiritize the business he or she takes care of based on the level of influence exerted upon or inducements offered to them. If their job or their winter trips to Majorca are jeopardized if they don’t act, then they are going to act.

That doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to also do the things within their purview for which they don’t receive anything above and beyond their daily pay.  They just aren’t going to address them with as much urgency.

As much as we want to believe in the purity model of public service, if that’s what you’re really expecting from your government, you’ll sooner get a straight answer about the Kennedy or Allende assassinations.

No. The real problem with Rod Blagejovich is that he broke the compact. He could have done his job quietly, taken his money quietly, accepted his tribute quietly. That wasn’t enough.

Even worse than that, his behavior the last several weeks has suggested that there might be something to the murmurs floating around Springfield and greater Illinois and now the country: That the Governor has gone insane.

How else to explain it? He could have accepted a modest fifty or sixty large under the table, or a $300,000-a-year job for his wife, six steps removed from his actual part of the transaction. He could have tossed the expected bone–and hidden a fat steak around the corner, out of view of the judgmental eye of the media, and around another two corners from that sent his aide-de-camp to pick up the nondescript brown bag left on top of the garbage can, left their explicitly but discretely for his honor the Governor.

That is what the sane and careful public servant would have done. But even the sober and responsible in Illinois are saying it: He hasn’t gone dirty–he was always dirty. This is different. He’s actually lost his mind.

If it was a secret to anyone, it was the worst-kept secret in American politics since the fact that Richard Nixon had jowls that Governor Blagojevich has been under investigation since by federal authorities since 2003. Wiretaps, office surveillance, potential state’s witnesses–these aren’t new arrows in American justice’s investigatory quiver. It’s equal parts hubris, greed, and stupidity that, with the knowledge that your office has been under investigation for nearly six years, that you would actually use your office space, including your phones, to stamp and shout and call the President-elect a “motherfucker” and insist that the new President’s gratitude for his desired appointement of his Senate replacement wasn’t enough.

“They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. fuck them….I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I’m not gonna do it. And, and I can always use it. I can parachute me there.”

I understand gubernatorial leadership is a demanding job, but if this is going to be your agenda, at least set aside a few hours to catch an episode of two of The Sopranos when Tony visits Uncle Junior at his doctor’s appointments, because he knows that it’s the one place that there won’t be wiretaps.

In a state notorious for stupid corruption, this is stupidity on a grand scale. If they awarded gold medals for this kind of behavior, there would be no Wheaties box for Michael Phelps.

It was escpecially poetic that the Governor got his bracelets on December 9th, which was designated by UN General Assembly Resolution 58/4, on October 31, 2003, to become “International Anti-Corruption Day.” That Blagejovich’s arrest landed this past Tuesday wasn’t an accident, nor was the fact that Wednesday was his birthday. As dour and driven as he seems, Patrick Fitzgerald isn’t without a mischievous sense of humor.

Life is going to go on as usual in Illinois and in Illinois politics. But Blagojevich, in his deranged overreach of the dark but lucrative powers that the governorship of Illinois affords any electee, Republican or Democrat, has queered the patch for his party for the next 25 years. And it’s worse than that for his successor. Any upstart who wins the next gubernatorial race in Illinois who thinks he can exercise his implied institutional right to fill his shoebox with the tribute of patronage and legislative favors is going to be holding an empty cup, and if they have the sense that God gave your average mule, they won’t make a stink about it, but they don’t, so they will.

And Illinois will lather, rinse, and repeat, and the state penal system will have a very solid argument for a special wing for its homegrown elected officials, finally, because one of their own–after a storied legacy of public servants brazenly stealing hot stoves–went one step too far and filed a medical claim because his hands got burned.

Many have talked starry-eyed about Barack Obama’s alleged brilliance. That remains to be proven, but to date the smartest thing he’s ever done for his ethical legacy, is to carry himself as far away from Illinois as possible. Not that he should forget the power of a well-placed $20 bill, though. Discretion really is the better part of valor.

It wasn’t long ago that Rod had dreams of the White House–he might still; he’s that far off the rails. But he’s not going to get close to Washington anytime soon. Rod is going to jail. It’s surely not the legacy he was after, but a legacy is a legacy, right? Unfortunately, he will be the third man to hold his seat in the last 35 years to also take up residence in the Illinois correctional system.

While that distinction is out of play, he can at least take pride in that he’s the most dimly-lit Illinois chief executive ever to get his marching orders to the big house. Consider it Witness Protection, though, because the magnifying glasses are going to be focusing on the Windy City, thanks to his hubris, and changing the way everyone from his day forward does business. He might find his place in history yet.