For many years after moving to Chicago I witnessed Illinois politicians and I asked my Ohio self: "These people were innocent children once. How did they get this way?" The question, usually dismissed as naive and silly by Illinois natives, is on my mind again.
A little over a year ago I profiled an Illinois politician, Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar, for Chicago Magazine. He's not Rod Blagojevich, but he's also being hunted by U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, he had also been dogged for years by controversy and accusations of corruption, he had also refused to clip his flamboyant wings.
For instance, he sat down with me, and spilled his guts:
Roger Claar has been crying, on and off. The 61-year-old Republican has spent most of a day and part of an evening telling a reporter his life story: His largely unhappy childhood in Effingham, growing up "a shy, chubby kid in a crewcut with hand-me-down clothes" in what he describes as a "dysfunctional" family with four kids and a mother who "didn't support" him. His journey to Kansas State University in 1971 to get a Ph.D. ("For a fat little kid from Effingham, that was a bold move," he says.) His early career as a school administrator, which led him to take a job near Bolingbrook. His rise from village trustee to mayor, first elected in 1986. His side of the scandals that have dogged him along the way. His political relationships with Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan, which led to a seat on the board of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, where he helped make Bolingbrook the thriving suburban crossroads it is today. And his secrets for bringing in the commerce and housing development that put Bolingbrook on the map.
Almost all these subjects make him emotional.
Claar angrily likens Bolingbrook's onetime status as a poor relation to neighboring Naperville to his own plight as a child at the family dinner table, when he was the last of the four kids to get the fried chicken. "I'd get a back. I'd get crumbs."
He talks regretfully about his 25-year-old daughter, Lindsey, whose childhood was troubled by the controversy around him. He seethes over a Chicago Sun-Times front-page article by Tim Novak about Claar's resignation from the tollway authority board. The story ran the day after Lindsey moved into her Northwestern University dorm. Lindsey told her mother she'd left Bolingbrook "to get away from all this." As tears come to his eyes, Claar says, "I could have killed Novak, that jagoff!"
Now, Claar is having a hard time talking as he tells of waking up in the middle of the night, wondering what U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office will dig up in its ongoing investigation into yet another scandal ...
Claar says he lies in bed, staring into the pitch black, wondering, "What are [the investigators] looking for? What are they going to do?" He keeps checking the front door, hoping the newspaper has been delivered, because reading is the only thing that gets his mind to stop scaring up scenarios in which a desperate witness points the finger at him to get a break from the feds. "All I have is my fucking reputation!" he cries. "I'm not a rich man!"
That passage represents the closest this Ohioan ever came to getting an answer to my questions: Where do men like these come from, and what actually goes on in their brains?