Being Rod Blagojevich

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-psychologized. 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 predeces sor, 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 of fice 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 him self to duck threats of impeachment from the state legislature.

Mud splattered on some nice suits. The wiretaps suggested that the governor had been approached by a representative of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. seeking the Senate seat in exchange for the congressman raising at least $500,000 for the governor. "I reject and denounce pay-for-play politics and have no involvement whatsoever in wrongdoing," said Jackson. Representatives of the Service Employees International Union vigorously denied talking to the governor about a deal: appointing a pro-union senator, Obama's close friend and future White House aide Valerie Jarrett, in return for giving Blagojevich a high-paying job in organized labor. President-elect Obama had to find three different ways to tell reporters that neither he nor his staff were involved in any dealmaking with Blagojevich; Fitzgerald, in his press conference, made clear that Obama was not accused of any wrongdoing. But the best evidence that Obama and his aides were not willing to play ball with Blagojevich came from the tapes: "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," spluttered the governor. "[Expletive] them."

To hear his fellow politicians tell it, Blagojevich is vain, vindictive and slightly (or entirely) mad. Sensitive about his coiffure, the governor keeps in his glove compartment a hairbrush, which aides have jokingly dubbed "the football," after the nickname for the president's ever present nuclear codes. Alienated from the Illinois political establishment, Blagojevich avoids Springfield, the state capital, and often works out of his Chicago home, a kind of political bunker filled with sycophants. So how did he become governor? Apparently, he has an uncanny ability to remember names. "If you've got an animal, he'll know your dog's name and cat's name and the next time he sees you he'll ask how your cat is," says State Sen. Mike Jacobs. And he married well. A small-time state prosecutor (he handled traffic cases), he wed the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman, Richard Mell. Raising money and calling in fa vors, Mell shepherded his son-in-law to the state Senate, the U.S. Congress and the governorship, mostly because Blagojevich was able to heavily outspend all opponents.

But once in the governor's chair, Blagojevich turned on his father-in-law, in bizarrely petty ways. Reached by NEWSWEEK last week, Mell confirmed a story that first appeared in Chicago magazine that the governor used an aide to tell Mell to remove the governor's name from Mell's official 33rd Ward letterhead. Mell was surprised and wounded. "He's my son-in-law—pick up the goddam telephone and call me," Mell told Chicago magazine. Blagojevich shut down a landfill owned by a cousin of Mell's wife and then introduced a law banning relatives of the governor from owning landfills.

The governor proceeded to antagonize the speaker of the state legislature, Mike Madigan (by, among other ways, distributing fliers that referred to at least one of Madigan's African-American supporters as "Madigan's Monkey," according to Illinois lawmakers; Blagojevich denied it). Blagojevich liked to call the legislature into special session just to ruin the lawmakers' holidays. (In one case, the governor kept the lawmakers in session while he went to a Blackhawks hockey game; legislators were furious and insisted that the governor reimburse the state nearly $6,000 for his travel expenses.) The governor's power of persuasion often amounted to bullying. State Sen. Jacobs recalled that when he refused to vote for a $7 billion tax increase on business, "the governor went ballistic on me like a 10-year-old child and balled up his fists and threatened to ruin me politically, threatened to ruin me personally and hovered over me with his fists clenched … He started having labor leaders call me and tell me if I didn't do what he wanted it would be bad." The bill lost 107 to 0. Blagojevich, in his never-never- land fashion, told reporters that the defeat was "basically an up." (Guerrero, the Blagojevich spokesman, declined to comment.)

In October of last year, the Blagojevich administration abruptly fired the wife of Speaker Madigan's chief of staff from her job as a child psychologist at the state's Department of Human Services. "He was so hell-bent on getting power," said State Rep. Jack Franks. "It's like the Mafia—you never touch the spouse. It was an unwritten rule and he broke that rule, too."

Lawmakers began talking about impeachment. But, according to the Feds' phone taps, Blagojevich, who complained that he "felt stuck" as governor, was al ready allegedly planning his escape to higher ground. He was hoping he could wangle a cabinet job in Washington. Sec retary of energy was best, Blagojevich ventures on the tape, because that's "the one that makes the most money." (The salary is the same as all cabinet posts, but the next job in the private sector would presumably be lucrative.) Or, Blagojevich grandly suggests, he might run for president in 2016. For now, says Guerrero, Blagojevich is "trying to bring normalcy back to the office. He signed a piece of legislation [Friday] about autism."

But providence works in strange and mysterious ways. In 2004 Blagojevich's former campaign consultant—David Axelrod—had become so disillusioned with Blagojevich that he privately gave himself an ultimatum: either find a reason to be inspired by politics once again, or quit the business. Axelrod found inspiration in an obscure state senator running for the U.S. Senate named Barack Obama.

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