Something very strange – and disturbing – has happened with Rod Blagojevich. Even as the legal wheels are turning in Springfield that will remove him from the Illinois governorship, he has become a media star, warmly and affectionately treated by people who ought to know better.
When Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, arrested Blagojevich two months ago and released excerpts from the court-approved wiretaps showing the governor obscenely calculating how he could cash in on the opportunity to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat, the initial public and press reaction was, “What a sleaze.”
But even as Blagojevich has abandoned any pretense of mounting a legal defense of his actions, he has launched a full-scale public relations campaign, hitting the morning talk-show circuit to parade his impudence under the guise of proclaiming his innocence.
It’s as if there were no bill of particulars filed against him and approved almost unanimously by the members of the Illinois House of Representatives, who have endured six years of his misgovernment.
By simply asserting the claim that the state Senate trial on those charges is “a witch hunt,” Blagojevich has tried to duck responsibility for his foul words and deeds while cloaking himself in phony martyrdom.
When interviewed on four TV and cable networks, the first – and maybe only – question should have been: “Why the hell are you here in our studio instead of where you belong: testifying under oath in the Senate trial in Springfield?”
Instead, Blagojevich was allowed to charge, falsely, that the rules of the trial prevented him from calling defense witnesses or making his own case.
To my chagrin, the PR offensive seems to be working, not only with TV talkers who often confuse celebrity with more serious attributes, but with journalists who ought to know better.
In a single edition of the Washington Post, two of my most admired colleagues, Eugene Robinson and Dana Milbank, treated Blagojevich as if he were a kind of lovable rascal, a scamp to be enjoyed for the laughs he provides.
Milbank wrote that whatever his shortcomings, “the man’s entertainment skills are unimpeachable.”
Robinson went further overboard. Blagojevich, he wrote, is “about to be impeached on grounds of loopiness, obnoxiousness and a bad haircut.” But, he added, “it is unclear to me what else Blagojevich has done that a duly constituted jury would find illegal.”
Saying he doubted anything in the Fitzgerald tapes is “enough to put him in jail,” Robinson added that Blagojevich’s “talents would be wasted there,” because “the man was born to be a talk-show host,” so quick with a quip and so gifted a mimic that he would earn big ratings.
Excuse me if I’m not laughing. The people who are treating Blagojevich as a figure of fun apparently have no idea what damage he has done to the state of Illinois. His depredations did not begin with the Fitzgerald tapes. When I was in Springfield almost two years ago for a bipartisan dinner at the Lincoln Library, I was told by prominent Republicans and Democrats, including a widely admired former governor, that the Blagojevich administration was “the worst ever.”
At the time, Fitzgerald was already working his way up through Blagojevich’s chain of command, bringing in one official after another, convicting them, and then offering some leniency in the sentencing in return for their testimony against higher-ups.
It was assumed at that dinner that eventually Fitzgerald would have the pieces in place to show that Blagojevich was at the center of this criminal conspiracy. It was the urgency of stopping the governor from carrying out his reported plan to auction the Senate seat to the highest bidder that forced Fitzgerald to move when he did.
Meantime, the citizens of my home state have paid a terrible price for Blagojevich’s dereliction of duty. While neighboring Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin all have enjoyed the benefits in the past six years of innovative, effective and upright governors, Illinois has seen its finances, its school systems and its competitive position wasted by a governor known for his absenteeism and greed.
That’s a joke to some people, but not to a state I love.
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