Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich emerged from prison just like he went in: defiantly proclaiming his innocence and ostentatiously displaying his carefully coiffed victimhood.
If you were too young to know about Blagojevich or your memory is hazy, you’re now getting a lesson in Rod 101. He knows what reporters want, and he’s more than happy to give it to them if it serves his purposes. He will say anything, literally anything, to stay in the public eye, no matter how far from the truth it may be. And reporters are eagerly obliging him.
He once proclaimed himself “on the side of the Lord” during a budget stalemate. He repeatedly accused House Speaker Michael Madigan, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, of being a Republican. After his proposed gross receipts tax failed in the House by a vote of 0-107, he said that, overall, it had been an “up” day.
Blagojevich was late to absolutely everything, including the funeral of Sen. Vince Demuzio, a beloved Statehouse figure. Oftentimes, his tardiness was intentional. I rode on a tour bus with him in 2007 while he was promoting his gross receipts tax. As we arrived at the outskirts of a small town for yet another staged event, the governor ordered the bus driver to pull to the side of the road because, he said, we were ahead of schedule. He disappeared into the restroom to brush his hair, finally emerging to give the go-ahead to proceed to the venue, 15 minutes behind schedule.
He thrived on chaos because that kept him at the center of attention. His reign was marked by one bitter overtime legislative session after another as he did battle with his archenemy Madigan.
It got so bad at one point that then-Rep. Joe Lyons, D-Chicago, one of the most chill state legislators you will ever meet, marched up to the press box to tell reporters in all sincerity that the governor had become a “madman.” Then-Rep. Mike Bost called for his impeachment more than a year before Blagojevich’s arrest. He literally drove people crazy just by being him.
He was elected as a reformer in the wake of Gov. George Ryan’s scandals. He held a big, showy Chicago press conference with every reform group imaginable during his first term to press for changes that would box in and embarrass his nemesis Madigan. And then he was reelected by 10 points just days after his chief campaign fundraiser was busted by the feds.
Blagojevich was a populist phony. He fought for good things like universal children’s healthcare and free public transit rides for senior citizens, but it was always about him. He rode a tall white show horse.
He truly believed he could be president one day, then watched in growing horror as an obscure state legislator who practiced what he preached on reform rose to the U.S. Senate and then the White House.
After wrapping up his first overtime session (which was resolved after he agreed to skip two years’ worth of state pension payments) Blagojevich attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention but left early because the media’s focus was on keynote speaker Barack Obama and not him.
He had awe-inspiring political skills, then squandered everything. He didn’t want to be governor any longer because with Obama’s rise he finally realized the office was no longer the national springboard he’d imagined. So he said and did some stupid things to secure his future while the feds were listening and wound up in prison.
It could’ve actually been much worse. Attorney General Lisa Madigan had been investigating his administration. She ended her probe at the federal government’s request, turning over all her files to them. But then the feds took the easy route of planting bugs in his office and monitoring his phones.
Blagojevich inherited a troubled budget and then proceeded to drive Illinois into a fiscal ditch from which it has never recovered. And 19 months after his predecessor was convicted on federal corruption charges — the same predecessor whom Blagojevich had railed against for six solid years — he was arrested at his own home in an early morning federal raid.
He eschewed his pardoning power, unwilling to grant the forgiveness that he presumes will be offered up to him now. But you shouldn’t be forgiven if you don’t apologize, and he has never once said he was sorry for the damage he did to his state.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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