Blagojevich Trial Exposes Illinois's Political Culture

Photos: Click to view the long history of Illinois's political corruption.

It was more than 50 years ago that Paddy Bauler proclaimed, "Chicago ain't ready for reform." The city's colorful alderman and saloonkeeper wasn't lamenting. He was bragging. This is a place where people like to crow. After all, the moniker "Windy City" was coined not for the robust gusts off Lake Michigan, but for the bluster of Chicago politicians and civic boosters.

As a federal jury prepares to weigh the fate of Rod Blagojevich--the latest former Illinois governor on trial on corruption charges (his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, is in stir)--the defense is claiming that those seemingly incriminating tapes played by the prosecutors captured nothing criminal, only a lot of hot air.

"I talk too much," Blago told reporters outside the courthouse last week, explaining why he ultimately decided not to take the witness stand after blabbing for months on television and radio shows. In a trial before U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel, the former governor faces 24 charges, including claims that he tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated with the election of Barack Obama.

Democratic politicians from Illinois surely wish Blagojevich had shut up a lot sooner, and that includes Obama, who scarcely needs more embarrassing antics from his party in his home state.

"The Chicago way" has become a cliché to describe heavy-handed, quid pro quo politics. As the November elections approach, Republicans will surely remind voters that Washington is run largely by Illinois alums: Obama, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, not to mention cabinet members Arne Duncan and Ray LaHood, or the U.S. Senate powerhouse Dick Durbin. It seems that everything Republicans object to can be described as "Chicago-style," most recently BP's agreement with the Obama administration to set aside $20 billion, which the Republican Study Committee derided as a "Chicago-Style Political Shakedown."

But the political culture of Illinois is complicated. The vaunted old "Chicago machine" of political lore is vastly diminished, as courts long ago cut most patronage jobs. Obama, for his part, came out of the bookish Hyde Park neighborhood, where a reform brand of politics held little clout with the old guard. Even among the "Democratic regulars," as the party loyalists are known, it is not always one big happy family. Blagojevich, 53, years ago broke badly with his father-in-law, Richard Mell, the heavy-hitting Chicago alderman and party leader. It is believed they do not speak.
"A fistfight," the writer Eugene Kennedy once observed, "is the best metaphor for Chicago."
Obama, for all his penchant for waxing poetic, could have scarcely survived this terrain without being able to take a punch, or throw one. "He's a product of the environment," says Paul Green, one of the most streetwise pundits in Chicago, who is the director of the School of Policy Studies at Roosevelt University. "Obama had that lean, hungry look about him from the start. He's a hard-nosed, tough guy who surrounded himself with hard-nosed, tough guys."
But Blagojevich was not one of them. The former governor, who had his own presidential ambitions, could scarcely conceal his resentment of the young hotshot who eclipsed every other Illinois politician in 2004 when he became a national sensation following his electrifying speech at the Democratic convention.
The corruption trial has mixed a circus with pathos. Blagojevich, seeming at times detached from the gravity at stake, has mugged for cameras and signed autographs for curiosity seekers.
For all his clowning in public, Blagojevich frequently comes across on the tapes as a depressed, embittered man who seems to see himself as a political failure and even wonders aloud about his mental state. On Monday, many people cringed as Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, brought along their children, Amy, 14, and Annie, 7, to listen to profanity-laced tapes and hear a prosecutor describe their dad as a crook.
In possibly the most damning of the tapes, Blagojevich talks about the value of the Senate seat that he has the power to fill. "I've got this thing, and it's f--king golden," he says, referring to the seat he eventually filled with Roland Burris. "I'm not giving it up for f--king nothing."
On the tapes, Blagojevich ponders the sort of appointments he might wrangle from the White House, including an ambassadorship to India. Evidence shows that the White House, which favored Jarrett for the Senate spot, was willing to give Blagojevich nothing more than gratitude.
The case has provided plenty of material for wisecracking comics and columnists. Blagojevich spent months before the trial on television shows proclaiming his innocence and vowing to testify and set the record straight. Patti Blagojevich subjected herself to an appearance on a reality show, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, where she ate bugs.
But for all the absurdities, the case has produced plenty of ruin and tragedy. The former governor's older brother, Robert, had built a reputation as an honorable man in the military, in business, and in charity work before going to Illinois in 2008 as a favor to Rod to help with fundraising. Now Robert Blagojevich faces charges in connection with improper solicitation of contributions. One of the former governor's advisers, Christopher Kelly, who was under pressure to cooperate with prosecutors, committed suicide last year, leaving young children fatherless. Rod Blagojevich is so broke that a suburban storage facility holding some of his belongings announced plans to sell the former governor's collection, which includes a life-size statue of Elvis Presley.
In the trial, both prosecutors and defense lawyers agree on at least one thing: Blagojevich was incompetent. Sam Adam Jr., the defense lawyer known for his flamboyance, mocked his client as a blowhard who ran his mouth about schemes but could not figure out a way to exact "a single dime" out of a state budget of tens of billions of dollars. But Christopher Niewoehner, the assistant U.S. attorney, said Blagojevich's lack of success at scheming didn't matter. "The law doesn't require you to be a successful crook," he told the jurors, "it just requires you to be a crook."
And in Illinois, the Democrats scarcely have any corner on corruption. There have been politicians of every stripe there who have been caught with a hand in the till.

Dirk Johnson is a former Chicago bureau chief of NEWSWEEK.