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Sympathy For The Blago

There was no shortage of shocking material in the criminal complaint the feds filed against Rod Blagojevich yesterday, but the bit of information that seems to have caused the biggest collective headslap was the revelation that the embattled Illinois governor was actively contemplating a White House run. As more than one person joked (props to TalkBacker waynejm for being, so far as I can tell, the first person to come up with it), at least Blago's presidential ambitions made a potential insanity defense more credible. But here's the thing: as hard as it may be to believe now, it was only a few years ago that talk of a President Blagojevich wasn't at all delusional--and Blago wasn't the only one talking about it.

I call your attention to the November 27, 2002, copy of the Chicago Sun-Times (not available online, alas), in which the late columnist Steve Neal, writing under the headline "Blagojevich looking to trade up", reveals that "in conversations with Democratic allies, he has outlined a six-year plan to capture the White House. . . . His scenario calls for him to win re-election in 2006 and jump into the 2008 presidential race." The 45-year-old Blago had just been elected governor--he wouldn't even take office for another couple months--but his plan wasn't as far-fetched as it might have seemed. As Neal wrote:

He has an engaging personality and is effective at grassroots campaigning. In small states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which have major influence in Democratic presidential politics, Blagojevich has the potential to win votes. He has the determination to spend long months in pursuit of his goal. Blagojevich, who raised a state record of $23 million to win the governorship, is a good fund-raiser and will need big money to wage a national campaign.

If Blagojevich has a weakness, it is on the policy side. He has left few footprints in his decade as a state and national legislator. But as the governor of a large industrial state, he will soon have a chance to prove himself by confronting complex problems.

There are few better springboards to the presidency than a governorship.  

Over the next two years, the White House buzz around Blago only built. His proposed ban on violent video game purchases by teenagers won him admiring national headlines, and his calls to import low-cost foreign pharmaceuticals and European flu shots during the national vaccine shortage seemed to be the sort of issues that would play well in a presidential campaign. He was routinely asked whether he'd accept the Democratic veep nomination in 2004--something he said he wouldn't do. U.S. News & World Report's "Washington Whispers" column, perhaps offering a hint as to why, reported that Blago's father-in-law, the Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, was rooting for "a second Bush term" since that would mean there'd be no Democratic incumbent standing in the way of a Blago '08 presidential run.

But by 2005, such talk had ceased. Yes, Bush had won his second term, but Blago's six-year plan to capture the White House had begun to unravel. For one thing, he and his father-in-law had had a falling out--over a landfill operated by Mell's cousin that Blagojevich, as governor, had tried to shut down for illegal practices. The family feud led Mell to accuse his son-in-law's top fundraiser of trading appointments to state commisions for campaign donations--which triggered a series of investigations that would metastasize over the years, leaving a permanent ethical cloud over Blago's head (and which eventually produced yesterday's lightning strike). And then, of course, there was now another Illinois politician who was generating his own bit of presidential buzz. When Blago was elected governor in 2002 and telling the crowd at his victory party that "llinois has voted for change,” Barack Obama was a mere state senator. But after his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama, not Blago, was the fair-haired boy of Illinois Democratic politics. 

It's entirely possible that Blago was always a bad seed and that it was all but inevitable he'd meet the bad end he's about to suffer. But, at the same time, it's noteworthy that even Blago's critics have been shocked by the portrait the criminal complaint paints of the governor--that not even they imagined he was this, as the NYT puts it, "delusional, narcissistic, vengeful and profane." And it makes you wonder whether there was something that sent Blago around the bend. Because reading through the complaint, the other thing that emerges about Blago (besides his delusions, narcissism, vengefulness, and profanity) is his frustration--frustration that he's not in Washington, frustration that he's not making more money, frustration that, as he put it, he's "stuck" as governor. 

It's hard to have much sympathy for anyone who feels "stuck" as the governor, much less a governor who appears to have been less a public servant than a shakedown artist. But, at the same time, it's less hard to imagine how a person, stuck in a job he saw as a stepping-stone rather than a capstone, might react when the guy who snaked the promotion he wanted now comes to him to ask for a favor (the favor in this case being the appointment of Valerie Jarrett to the Senate). That passed-over person is going to want something in return. And when all that's offered in return is a big thank you, well, it's not so hard to imagine that person's response: "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," Blagojevich is recorded saying in the second most shocking part of the complaint. "Fuck them." That doesn't make what Blago allegedly did legal or ethical, but it does make it, looked at in a certain way at least, a little bit more understandable. Nothing, though, can explain the hair.

--Jason Zengerle