Obama Made Me Do It
How Rod Blagojevich plans to turn his trial into a political spectacle.
About a month after Rod Blagojevich was elected governor of Illinois in November 2002, I went to a fundraiser for a Chicago ward boss. Held at a banquet hall, it was like a three-dot gossip column come to life, as the emcee recited the names of all the pols who'd come to pay their respects. ("Judge Murphy is with us tonight … and here, from the Water Reclamation District ....") I'd been dragged there by a punch-drunk, putty-nosed boxer named Johnny Lira, aka. the World Class Pug. Johnny had once fought for the lightweight title but now dabbled in politics.
As we circulated among tables of sewer workers who'd been forced to buy $100 tickets, I ran into an old ward heeler who'd gotten his start in the organization of Blagojevich's father-in-law, a powerful alderman.
"I'm going to be stumping for Rod in New Hampshire in 2008," the man said.
Not to brag about my political instincts, but I laughed at the prospect of President Blagojevich. At the time, though, Hot Rod was the Democratic Party's biggest star. After more than two decades of Republican crooks in the governor's mansion, the voters of Illinois had decided it was time to give a Democratic crook a chance. As it turned out, another Illinois politician ended up stumping in New Hampshire. But in 2002, Barack Obama was an obscure state senator who was still recovering from his ass-whipping in a congressional race two years before.
All this explains a lot about how Rod Blagojevich plans to conduct himself at his corruption trial, which is expected to last all summer and will focus in part on the question of whether he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama. (As governor, Blagojevich had the power to appoint Obama's replacement, which he used to name the has-been Roland Burris.) It's going to be the political spectacle of the year, as Blagojevich uses his latest public platform to remind the world that he and Obama are products of the same sleazy political culture.
Blagojevich's lawyers have already tried to subpoena Obama to impeach the testimony of developer and Obama fundraiser Tony Rezko. Rezko, who is cooperating with the government's case against Blagojevich, has told investigators he tried to buy Obama's influence with illegal campaign contributions. Only Obama can rebut that claim, Blagojevich argued.
U.S. District Court Judge James B. Zagel turned down Blagojevich's request to subpoena the president, but the ex-governor will be hauling in Obamanauts Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, and senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. According to some reports, Obama used Emanuel to persuade Blagojevich to appoint Jarrett to the Senate seat. If Blagojevich goes down, he wants to take the Illinois Democratic establishment with him.
Even as hungry young Democrats in Springfield, Blagojevich and Obama were suspicious of each other. And not just because both wanted to be president. They represented two different strains in Chicago politics. Blagojevich, raised in a dreary apartment by a steelworker father, considered Obama an elitist egghead from Hyde Park, the academic ghetto surrounding the University of Chicago. Obama thought Blagojevich was a vapid machine-politics hack. As a loyal Democrat, though, Obama sat in on Blagojevich's campaign strategy sessions, where he learned to emulate the candidate's two-handed approach to politicking: the right hand shakes, the left goes for the wallet. Obama became a more aggressive fundraiser after watching in awe as Blagojevich collected $24 million during his first run for governor.
Obama even used Blagojevich as an example of how an ethnically exotic candidate could succeed in the Midwest. "There are some who might say that somebody named Barack Obama can't be elected senator in the state of Illinois," Obama would tell audiences. "They're probably the same folks who said that a guy named Rod Blagojevich couldn't be elected governor of the state of Illinois."
The two liberals collaborated on a bill that added 20,000 children to the state's health insurance plan. But Blagojevich could never hide his envy of Obama's rise, mocking him as "Baaary Obaaama" in an exaggerated Chicago accent. After Obama's roof-raiser at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Blagojevich told him, "Great speech, Barack. But remember, this is as good as it gets."
Now Obama is president. Blagojevich, meanwhile, was the break-out buffoon on Celebrity Apprentice, where he distinguished himself with his napping and hapless typing.
Blagojevich's lead attorney is Sam Adam Jr., a rotund 37-year-old who made his bones by delivering the bombastic (and successful) closing argument at R&B singer R. Kelly's child-pornography trial. I watched that trial, and I left uncertain whether Adam had attended law school or just rented ... And Justice for All on DVD. If Sam Jr. could acquit a guy who was (allegedly) caught on videotape with a 13-year-old girl, imagine what he can do with Blagojevich, who's only on audio.
Blagojevich may be saved by the fact that his alleged criminal career was as ineffectual as his gubernatorial reign. In both endeavors, he made a lot of threats and promises, but he didn't actually do anything. As governor, he failed to provide health insurance to all Illinoisans, failed to pass a $34 billion plan to build new roads and schools, and (obviously) failed to keep his inaugural vow to end the state's "pay to play" political culture. Despite his assertion that Obama's Senate seat was "fucking golden, and I'm not just giving it up for fuckin' nothing," Blagojevich's arrest forced him to give it away for nothing.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Blagojevich allegedly demanded that Emanuel hold a fundraiser for him before he released grant money for a school in his district. When the school's bills came due, Blagojevich caved, forking over the grant. Blagojevich's cronies allegedly tried to extort a campaign contribution from an investment firm by threatening to deny it money from the Teachers Retirement System. After the firm promised to expose them, they decided the shakedown was "too risky."
Remember Jimmy Breslin's book The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight? Blagojevich brought Breslin to court on Tuesday. The semi-retired chronicler of big-city mopes is writing a book about the case. Maybe he can call it The Gang That Couldn't Be Crooked Straight. The prosecution says Blagojevich tried to sell Obama's seat because he was $200,000 in debt. Adam had an answer for that: The fact that Blagojevich was broke proves that "he didn't take a dime."
In his opening statement Tuesday, Adam portrayed the two-term governor of Illinois as an unsophisticated, gullible street kid who had no idea Rezko and other advisers were plotting hinky scams out of his office. "He was fooled," Adam said of Blagojevich.
One of those advisers, Blagojevich's former chief of staff, Lon Monk, took the stand Wednesday. In exchange for rolling over on his ex-boss, Monk received a two-year sentence for conspiracy to solicit a bribe. Monk discussed how he, Rezko, and Blagojevich confidant Christopher Kelly, who committed suicide as a result of his legal troubles, raised all those millions for Blagojevich's 2002 election.
Blagojevich's antics since he lost the governorship—his memoir, his weekly radio show, his Elvis impersonation alongside a Fabio look-alike at a block party, his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice—have been described as efforts to taint the jury pool by declaring his innocence in every available medium. By making a fool of himself, Blagojevich could also be trying to build the impression that he's a harmless clown, incapable of the political venalities he's accused of.
As a campaigner, Blagojevich never lost an election. Before this trial even started, he was already employing his charm: During jury selection, Blagojevich flirted with the courtroom sketch artists until they both cracked smiles. Hey, it worked on Celebrity Apprentice. Blagojevich's fellow C-listers expected a corrupt, hardened politician but developed a fondness for their bumbling castmate.
"I think a lot of people are liking Rod," Donald Trump concluded.
Now, once again, Rod Blagojevich has to convince a dozen people he's not such a bad guy. This is his last campaign. It's a long fall from plotting for the presidency.
Edward McClelland is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, to be released in May by Bloomsbury Press. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Rod Blagojevich by Scott Olson/Getty Images.