Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick

Back in the 1970s, a Sun-Times summer intern who was white, affluent, expensively educated, and innocent came to the attention on the streets of Chicago of someone who was none of those things. Reaching for his wallet as he looked down the barrel of the stranger’s gun, the intern blurted the first thing that came into his head.

“Let me explain.”

Telling this story on himself, the intern called it a case of liberal guilt (a major component of that era). But he’d also reacted like a journalist. Of the five Ws and an H, the one that separates the reporter from the mere tale-teller is why. Reporters need to explain things. When they do, the liberals are willing (perhaps too willing) to implicate themselves in the woes of the world. Conservatives, on the other hand, prefer to think of themselves as bystanders.

But the lines blur. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass reminds us every week or so that he’s no liberal, yet the other day, playing taps for Rod Blagojevich, he twice put something oddly. Only liberals blame the victim, right? Well, Kass almost did.

On June 28, contemplating Blagojevich’s conviction on 17 felony counts in federal court, Kass called Blago’s life “the perfect Chicago political cautionary tale: the desperate kid who wanted to be liked, the boy who married the ward boss’s daughter, the kid who ingratiated his way into the Fifth Congressional District, and who, with the help of patronage armies of knuckle draggers, was finally elected governor as a self-professed reformer.”

The next day Kass fielded letters from readers. “Bob H” wrote: “The prosecutors can talk all they want about ‘sending a message,’ but the real players just keep feeding at the trough of taxpayer money. And we are the chumbolones.”

Kass more than agreed. “As far as whether we are the chumbolones or not, the answer is plain. We are the chumbolones. After all, Blagojevich was elected governor twice.”

Why the awkward shifts to the passive tense? I doubt if Kass ever voted for Blagojevich, but he was rhetorically entitled to don the mantle of peoplehood and say what needed to be said. We did it. We elected Blagojevich governor. Then we reelected him. It’s on us, readers. It’s on the voters of Illinois. Why did we do this to ourselves?

A friend with a downtown job in the corridors of power recalls a conversation he had early in Blagojevich’s triumphant 2002 run for governor. My friend was telling a guy he knew, someone close to Blago’s father-in-law and eminence grise, longtime alderman Richard Mell, that Blago didn’t impress him—too slippery and self-involved. “It’s worse than that,” replied Mell’s guy. “He’s crazy. He thinks of himself as a man of destiny. He believes one day he’ll be president.”

Then why are you working for such a nut? my friend wondered.

Because, said Mell’s guy, once he’s governor “his friends are gonna make a huge amount of money.”

It came to pass. Blago won and Mell’s guy became a lobbyist and made a pile, though there must have been tense moments years later when his name showed up in the transcripts of federal wiretaps. (He wasn’t indicted.)

Blago wasn’t mystery meat in 2002. And Democrats had alternatives. John Schmidt, a Chicago attorney of considerable repute, had wanted to run for governor, but he dropped out once it was clear the party support he needed was going to Blago instead. Paul Vallas, who’d run Chicago’s public schools, stayed in the race, as did former Attorney General Roland Burris, but Blago dominated the downstate vote and edged them out. And in November he won a close race against Attorney General Jim Ryan, who suffered from a compromised last name (same as the incumbent, George Ryan) and reputation (the wrongful conviction of Rolando Cruz).

In 2006 Blagojevich ran for reelection and beat the popular state treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka.

As we were reading postmortems on the second Blago trial we were also reading about how Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, managed to shepherd a bill through a divided legislature legalizing same-sex marriage in his state. According to the New York Times, Cuomo’s triumph was that of “a Democratic governor, himself a Catholic, who used the force of his personality and relentlessly strategic mind to persuade conflicted lawmakers to take a historic leap.”

The only historic leap Blagojevich induced Illinois lawmakers to take was the one to impeach him.

A relentlessly strategic mind sounds like a pretty good thing to be running a state, and surely one or two Illinoisans possess such a mind, plus an interest in public service. Why don’t they ever get elected governor? How come the last three elected governors have been a Republican now in prison, a Democrat going to prison, and a Democratic accident whom the state senate majority leader, also a Democrat, called irrelevant? Why not at least a Schmidt, a Vallas, a Topinka? It isn’t mere liberal guilt-tripping to hold ourselves, the good people of Illinois, responsible for playing a part in this dismal history. We chumbolones are culpable; we need to explain the why.

The conservative line on Blago: he committed crimes and needs to pay for them in prison. The liberal line: the important thing was to get him out of office; he’s a sociopath, more pathetic than evil, and there was no great need to empty the public purse putting him behind bars.

When Blagojevich was convicted, columnists walked this fault line. The Sun-Times‘s Richard Roeper called Blagojevich a “narcissist” and “one of the most delusional public officials ever.” And because he was already a “disgraced ex-governor, a “national punchline,” and “beyond broke,” Roeper said he would just as soon have skipped the second trial. Lock him up briefly on the one guilty count from the first trial, and be done with him.

Fellow Sun-Times scribe Mark Brown observed neither happiness nor sadness in the verdict, merely “a strong sense of relief.” A jury had concluded “this was illegal conduct that we should not tolerate,” which was the proper message to send if a jury had to send any message at all. But the important thing was that “finally, we can put him behind us and move on.” Brown doubted Illinois would be any better for sending Blago up the river. The rewards system would remain in place, and politicians who weren’t interested in being more honest would simply be more careful. Also, the common folk would continue to play an unhelpful role. “Fixing Illinois government,” Brown concluded, “will require citizens paying attention.” He hadn’t noticed that many do.

After being impeached, Blagojevich wandered around America pleading his case to anyone willing to switch on a microphone. He turned himself into a joke to liberals and conservatives alike and into a sort of outlier—someone so weird he fell beyond the usual categories of political corruption. His antics did the Illinois public a kindness: instead of being shamed by Blago we could simply be amused by him. Second City regaled us with Rod Blagojevich Superstar! A Lakeview bar announced its new cocktail, the Guilty Governor. “Justice has been served so we thought we should serve something too,” said an owner. Spirit Airlines came out with an ad that juxtaposed Blago’s hairdo and the headline “We got these fares and they’re f-ing golden.”

Interviewing Blago’s brother Robert Blagojevich for her Chicago magazine blog, Carol Felsenthal introduced him with the observation that Rob, 16 months older, “is a former banker, an Army veteran, and a serious man.” No one thinks of Blago as a serious man. But if he’s an outlier and a joke the people aren’t—the state’s only got one public and we’re it. Can we demand better candidates? Can we elect better candidates when we get them? What’s wrong with us?

If the Tribune wants to marshal its remaining resources and recapture old glory with another Pulitzer, it should assemble a task force to look at Illinois from every possible angle and answer the question of why the public and its political representatives collude in such amazing mismanagement. This task force would have both liberal and conservative reporters assigned to it—the latter to blame the wheeler-dealers and the former to wring their hands and chirp, “Yes, but we live here and we love them.” 

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