THE BLOG

Blagojevich's Magnificent Downfall

01/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Warren Washington Bureau Chief, New York Daily News; Former managing editor, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO--Even those most cynical about politics here, who buy into
the facile notion that nothing is legit, are moved to demurely ask,
"Do you fu**ing believe this?"

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich seems to have pulled his own Guantanamo;
blindfolding himself to all playing out around him. As a result, we
all have a graduate school primer on how so much of politics work, and
an ultimate challenge facing Barack Obama.

Since 2004, there have been many reports about criminal investigations
into the nitty gritty of the Illinois system, which one columnist sees
as nefariously run by an interlocking group of private and public
bigwigs he tags The Combine. They've focused on appointments to state
boards, the seeking of contracts, lobbying fees and the steering of
pension fund business, among other routine acts.

At the center are agencies that are both little known to the general
public and critical to the mundane but high-stakes decisions of
government most anywhere. They make decisions about whether a hospital
can expand, who'll get lucrative bond business and on letting
contracts for everything from highway concrete to toll road pizza
parlors.

The governor, whose predecessor is doing time in what the country
singers call the Crossbar Motel, knew full well that 13 people in and
around state government have been indicted or convicted, and about how
key fundraisers and even his own wife had been implicated (due to
questions about real estate commissions she received from
politically-connected clients). And, yet, he vented and bragged and
plotted on his home telephone even after word got out that he was
being secretly tape-recorded.

In so doing, he apparently forgot about the wondrous, ancillary
benefits of public parks, expansive parking lots and dank alleys. Even
in this age of declining personal privacy, they do afford the Tony
Sopranos of the world a chance to discreetly transact their business.

But there was the governor on the phone, padding the coffers of Sprint
or AT&T, while exhibiting a seemingly remarkable mix of recklessness,
compulsiveness, vanity and hubris.

If Abe Lincoln wasn't necessarily rolling in his grave, as U.S.
Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald suggested was the case with an image both
vivid and banal, you can imagine the clicking of heels in at least the
Chicago FBI office as they listened to audio far surpassing anything
to be found on the financially beleaguered combine of Sirius and XM
radio.

And, at the heart of it all, is money -- as is the case in about 49
other states, regardless of all the television chatter Tuesday about a
peculiarly "Chicago" brand of corruption.

Whatever the sources of the governor's angst (perhaps significant
legal fees from the tony law firm he's now ditched), the obsession
with how to "monetize" his post-political life was as unabashed as his
seeming desire to beat an imminent new state ethics law. The law would
make the so-called pay-to-play schemes harder and limit political
contributions by those doing state business.

What he reveals is a rather commonplace craving of a few too many in
public life. They get to party with the high and mighty, even impact
their lives, but never really feel part of the club, of the true
propertied class. They sit in their executive offices, with so many
nice perks but without the filthy lucre they see possessed by
those of equal, maybe clearly inferior, acumen.

"Where's mine?" they say.

And that brings us to Obama.

By most accounts, the Obama-Blagojevich relationship is a cool one.
And, for sure, one can imagine many in the Obama camp thumbing their
noses at the governor and his somewhat craven, tacky ways; all of
which give the aura of an early, too cute-by-half David Mamet hustler.

They are, after all, emblems of a new politics.

Sincerely wish them luck when they get to Washington and face the most
potent force in the District of Columbia: the lobbyist- and lawyer-led
status quo. It's an army enriched by generic PowerPoint presentations,
Rolodexes of decades-old chums and quid-pro-quos, and many a late
dinner in a Capital Grille corner booth.

And many of their names are probably to be found on the mile-long list
of Obama contributors, part of that record-busting grand total of $750
million. They are nothing if not pragmatic.

And just like Rod Blagojevich knows that a vacant U.S. Senate seat is
"a fucking valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing,"
these folks know the value of access, influence and changing -- or not
changing -- laws and regulations. Obama will see many of their faces as
he looks up from his TelePrompter at the Inauguration.

They are the many other reasons for Honest Abe to be rolling.