Blago Bracketted

09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Shawn Healy Civic Learning Scholar, McCormick Foundation Civics Program

Those searching for a quick primer on the pay-to-play scandal starring former Governor Rod Blagojevich that continues to cripple the State of Illinois would be wise to pick up Elizabeth Brackett's Pay to Play. The 236-page tome paints a portrait of a corrupt city and state, where Rod Blagojevich began his improbable rise, and whose equally stunning fall is symptomatic of a rotten political culture. Brackett, a local and national television correspondent for PBS, begins building Blagojevich as a sympathetic figure, only to document his Shakespearean slide upon reaching the pinnacle of power in the Land of Lincoln.

The son of immigrant parents, Blagojevich's tendencies were cemented at a young age. Shunning details, he was at best a mediocre student, entering Northwestern through the backdoor and later attending law school at Pepperdine when his LSAT score prohibited entry at a more prestigious institution. Upon graduation, he first flunked the bar, then upon passage, found that he lacked clout in the city that invented the term. This changed instantly when he met 33rd Ward Alderman Dick Mell's daughter Patti at a political event. They were wed two years later, and Blagojevich's political climb began on the back of a chief patronage provider, his father-in-law.

First elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, Blagojevich felt lost as a backbencher in Springfield, and sought a promotion soon thereafter. His run for Congress seized on an opening provided by the imprisoned Dan Rostenkowski, who temporarily lent the seat to the Republican Michael Flanagan before Blagojevich moved it back to the Democratic column with a massive victory in 1996. His tenure in Washington was equally uninspiring, short of his role in freeing three hostages held by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Come 2002, he campaigned for governor as a reformer, pledging to clean up the mess left by his since-imprisoned predecessor George Ryan. He narrowly bested former Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas in the primary, then strolled to a general election victory over former Attorney General Jim Ryan, a victim of an unfortunate last name.

Scandal beset Blagojevich from the beginning, as he elevated pinstripe patronage to a sport, trading campaign donations for lofty political appointments and lucrative state contracts. He governed by press conference, preferring to make populist appeals in the realms of health care and public transit over handholding in a legislature dominated by his own Democratic Party during his entire tenure in office.

He was able to stave off corruption charges to secure a second term, all along dreaming of a run for the White House. Blagojevich, who never lived in Springfield, abandoned even his Chicago office after 2006, interacting with aides throughout the day from home on his speakerphone. Embittered by Barack Obama's meteoric rise, Blagojevich resolved to share the spoils of his soon-to-be vacant Senate seat, resulting in his swift removal from office.

While this narrative has appeared in many forms elsewhere, its comprehensive, yet fluid presentation is useful for locals all-to-familiar with its specifics, and especially to those from afar previously unfamiliar with the pol with funny-sounding name, a pompadour and a penchant for Elvis. It presents President Obama as an occasional foil, the Chicago politician who navigated troubled waters and somehow emerged untainted. True, Obama confidants Axelrod, Emanuel, Jarrett, and Emil Jones share intimate ties with either Blagojevich, the Daley Machine, or both, and Tony Rezko was also an equal opportunity patron. Yet Obama's straight and narrow contrasts with Blagojevich's down and dirty, and it is no wonder that one man sits in the White House while the other awaits a federal home of a different variety.

Brackett writes that Blagojevich long admired Richard Nixon. The parallels between these two paranoid men are nothing short of eerie. Their up-from-the-bootstraps backgrounds yielded unimagined political success, yet their demons, namely a delusional desire for power, led to their untimely downfall. Nixon resigned when his impeachment was written on the wall. Blagojevich's impeachment trial began on his fallen hero's birthday. Nixon said his "mother was a saint" as he boarded Marine One on the White House lawn one final time. Blagojevich cited Kipling, then Tennyson, and faded with a pledge to continue his fight.

His trial is slated for next year, and the final chapter is far from written, but Brackett's timely work is worthy of a read by any citizen seeking to end pay-to-play, political corruption, and systemic problems bigger than Blagojevich.