The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blag "the For Saler"

Vlad “the Impaler,” a Fifteenth Century Romanian prince, was so vile in the treatment of his subjects and political enemies – so shocking, so appalling in a seemingly insatiable vampiric lust for ever more fresh blood – that Bram Stoker used him as the model for his monster creation, Dracula. It now appears that modern U.S. politics has created it own monster, with the arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich by federal authorities on corruption charges.

Illinois law stipulates that when a U.S. Senator from that state resigns their seat – as Barack Obama recently did in preparation to assume the Presidency – it falls to the Governor to appoint their replacement. A seventy-six page indictment contains hours of wiretapped conversations repeatedly demonstrating Blagojevich’s determination to auction off the appointment to the highest bidder.

Even long-time Chicago politicos, used to corruption and bribes within government, are amazed not only by the extent of Blagojevich’s dishonesty but also the brazenness by which he went about it.

He crowed his appointment power was a “golden” opportunity for him. He called the open Senate seat a “valuable thing, you just don't give it away for nothing.”

The Governor’s behavior was so outrageous it “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave”, according to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who brought the indictment. “Blagojevich put a ‘for sale’ sign on the naming of a United States Senator.”

Vlad the Impaler . . . meet Blag “the For Saler”.

Indeed, Blagojevich’s conduct was so bizarrely and blatantly uncharacteristic that those who know him speculate he is suffering from some type of mental breakdown.

“We're talking about something clinical here,” assert Don Rose, a longtime political strategist in Chicago. “This is beyond logic. It's beyond greed as we know it.”

Mike Jacobs, a Democratic State Senator and former friend of Blagojevich agrees. “I’m not sure he’s playing with a full deck anymore,” he said.

Blagojevich was fully aware his administration was the focus of a federal investigation involving an alleged $7 million scheme aimed at squeezing kickbacks out of companies seeking business from the state. Federal prosecutors were also investigating “serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud.” Tony Rezko, who raised money for Blagojevich, already faces jail time for fraud and other charges. Blagojevich's chief fundraiser, Christopher Kelly, is due to stand trial early next year on charges of obstructing the Internal Revenue Service.

What is more, Blagojevich openly dared authorities to monitor his conversations, vowing they would only hear him trying to help the citizens of Illinois. “I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly,” he sniffed.

What he did not know is that Fitzgerald had already gotten permission to bug both Blagojevich’s campaign headquarters and private home phone.

There appears to be no involvement by President-elect Obama in Blagojevich’s schemes. In fact, the Governor gripped with obvious disgust at one point that naming Obama’s preference to fill his seat would not “give me anything except appreciation.”

Yet there is an unmistakable connection between Blagojevich and Obama. Blagojevich swept into office as a reformer and change agent, promising to clean up and correct the mistakes of his predecessor, the dismally corrupt administration of George Ryan. “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Illinois has voted for change,” he told a crowd at his victory party on election night in 2002.

Sounds familiar. So does this profile of Blagojevich by Susan Saulny in today’s New York Times. “As a young congressman representing the North Side of Chicago, [he] was pegged as a rising star with a populist touch. Undistinguished as a lawmaker but with proven likeability in and out of Chicago . . .”

Then again, Blagojevich appears to have (unintentionally) followed another Presidential model in addition to Obama. Political observers report the Governor rarely visits his offices in Chicago and Springfield, almost becoming a prison in his own home on the North Side. He increasingly cut himself off from the state legislature as well as his father-in-law and political mentor, Dick Mell, a powerful longtime Chicago alderman.

This combination of Obama’s flashiness and George W. Bush’s insularity created a self-sustaining feedback loop that blinded Blagojevich to his own self-destructive behavior, according to Kent Redfield, a Political Science Professor at the University of Illinois. He believes Blagojevich came into office believing he was destined for bigger things, and became tripped up by ambition and impatience.

Simple greed was a factor – “I want to make money,” Blagojevich explicitly declares in one taped conversation – but it goes beyond that. Blagojevich also wanted power, influence, and, above all, upward mobility, in exchange for a Senate appointment.

After six years in the Governor’s seat, he saw himself as “stuck” and unappreciated, with his image in desperate need of restoration. He desired not only wealth but also a high-profile job in the public or private sector, even an ambassadorship. He daydreamed about a Cabinet job (Secretary of Health and Human Services) in the Obama Administration and toyed with the idea of running for President in 2016.

Blagojevich planned to create his own stepping stone if nobody would provide one for him by appointing himself to the vacant Senate seat if none of the bribes he hoped to receive were sufficiently satisfying. “I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain.”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has called for voters to choose Obama’s replacement by a special election, in case Blagojevich decides to blatantly fight the charges against him and remain in office.

In this event, “Certainly no self-respecting candidate should accept an appointment by Mr. Blagojevich” opines today’s lead editorial in the New York Times. Yet too much self-respect is exactly what got the Illinois Governor into his current mess. It is also behind President Bush making and then stubbornly sticking with his most regrettable decisions.

It is something for both Parties to think about, as first Republicans and subsequently Democrats begin casting about for “the next Obama” to win back or retain control of the White House. Whatever else he may accomplish, Obama has already set the bar very high regarding expectations for charismatic young politicians with Presidential ambitions. Blagojevich demonstrates the regrettable outcome when a black heart lies beneath the shiny facade.

It turned Blag “the Impatient” into Blag “the For Saler” and its insatiable vampiric lust for ever more fresh blood may soon turn him into Blag “the In Jailer.”

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