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It’s Act Two in Mike Madigan’s farewell drama — and he’s busy rewriting the script in hopes of curtain calls

Where many of us saw a career chiefly characterized by the shrewd accumulation and exercise of power, Madigan now asks us to see a life of public service dedicated to improving “the lives of the most vulnerable” and helping “hardworking people build a good life.” 

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, gives the thumbs up sign, as an indication that the House of Representatives is on schedule and working toward meeting the May 31 adjournment date in 2003.
Seth Perlman/AP file

Michael J. Madigan, never one to tell anybody outside the family what he’s thinking, let us in Thursday on a surprising secret.

Not that he was resigning the Southwest Side legislative seat he has held for 50 years. No, that’s been expected since he was supplanted as House speaker last month.

The surprise was to learn that Madigan cares what the public thinks about him.

In a carefully crafted announcement laying out his accomplishments in office, the oft-maligned Democratic politician took a belated stab at reshaping his tarnished legacy.

Where many of us saw a career chiefly characterized by the shrewd accumulation and exercise of power, Madigan now asks us to see a life of public service dedicated to improving “the lives of the most vulnerable” and helping “hardworking people build a good life.”

Madigan’s resignation announcement was quickly followed up with pre-packaged statements from labor unions and other allies offering their own praise for the former speaker.

It had all the earmarks of an orchestrated campaign.

To be sure, Madigan’s place in Illinois politics has always been more complicated than the cartoon caricature created by his detractors.

But for at least the last two decades, Madigan has shown little interest in what anyone thought about him outside the voters in his own district and his House Democratic caucus — and even then only to make sure they would support him for another term.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, takes the Oath of Office, in 2001.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, takes the Oath of Office, in 2001.
AP file

Madigan’s newfound interest in his legacy may be too little, too late, but history will no doubt take a longer view of his half-century in Springfield than is possible at the moment.

Madigan, who is said to be a student of history, is certainly entitled to take a shot at shaping the final narrative, although the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois will have its say, too.

For now, Madigan, 78, is turning his political obituary into a three-part saga.

In Act One, Madigan gave up the House speakership after a federal investigation of his dealings with Commonwealth Edison weakened him to the point that a revolt by 19 Democratic legislators forced his withdrawal from the speaker election.

Since relinquishing the speaker’s post, the source of his power, the next steps for Madigan have appeared inevitable, but he still delayed Act Two, resigning his House seat, for more than a month.

All that’s left is Act Three, in which it is presumed he will vacate the chairmanship of the Illinois Democratic Party, but for reasons known only to him he continues to delay.

Madigan’s lack of interest in his public image has always been an oddity for a politician.

Although he never had a warm and fuzzy relationship with the news media, there was a time earlier in his career when Madigan was more open and accessible to reporters.

The turning point was his daughter Lisa Madigan’s 2002 campaign for attorney general.

Lisa Madigan, then Democratic candidate for Illinois attorney general, reads an article about herself as her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, watches in 2002.
Lisa Madigan, then Democratic candidate for Illinois attorney general, reads an article about herself as her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, watches her as they await election results for the 2002 Democratic Primary.
Brian Kersey/AP file

The speaker pulled out all the stops in support of his daughter’s election, applying pressure as only he knows how, and he took a lot of criticism for it in the news media.

After that, a bitter Madigan withdrew from the public eye, becoming more inscrutable than ever.

As a product of old school Chicago Machine politics, Madigan had always held his cards close to the vest. That comes with the handbook.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, center, is surrounded by the media in Springfield in 2005.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, center, is surrounded by the media in Springfield in 2005.
Seth Perlman/AP file

But after that election, Madigan doubled down on the tactic of never allowing anyone to know what he was thinking or what his intentions were.

This was long before Gov. Bruce Rauner hit upon the strategy of making Madigan a pariah responsible for all of Illinois problems — after Madigan thwarted the Republican’s union-busting agenda.

Madigan was always totally blind to the questionable ethics of a high-ranking public official such as himself getting rich as a lawyer representing major property owners seeking reductions in their real estate taxes.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, right, watches over the House floor from the speaker’s podium in 2004.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, right, watches over the House floor from the speaker’s podium in 2004.
Seth Perlman/AP file

The fact that many of those property owners also had interests in state government and state policy decisions did not deter him. For him it was enough that it was legal.

“It’s no secret that I have been the target of vicious attacks by people who sought to diminish my many achievements lifting up the working people of Illinois,” Madigan stated Thursday. “The fact is, my motivation for holding elected office has never wavered. I have been resolute in my dedication to public service and integrity, always acting in the interest of the people of Illinois.”

That’s going to be a hard sell.