“New York is fantastic,” a pumped-up Rod Blagojevich said after strolling his way back to the luxurious Jumeirah Essex House on Central Park South just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday, hours after appearing on David Letterman. "Walking down the street here in Manhattan, cab drivers are honking, guys in cars are shouting support, ‘Keep it up! Keep fighting!’”
You have to hand to it Rod Blagojevich. For someone who’s supposedly the most cuckoo and crooked man in politics, he’s assembled quite a fan club. “I must say the guy is growing on me,” said Dennis Miller on Fox News. “I love Blago,” confessed Maureen Dowd with only a tinge of irony. “Sure, he'll still be kicked out of office tomorrow, but now everyone in America loves him,” wrote the media blog Gawker. Blagojevich even won the grudging respect of a teenager who posed for a picture with him outside the governor’s home on the day of his impeachment. “He doesn't seem like a total douche,” the kid opined to the Chicago Sun-Times.
When you consider Blagojevich’s introduction to America--arrested and handcuffed in early December, he was an immediate national punchline, a potty-mouthed, delusional thug--the fact that he was able to win any positive attention is a remarkable feat. At the beginning, he barricaded himself in his downtown office while the entire Illinois political world, starting with the President-elect whose Senate seat he’d tried to sell, called for his helmet head, which itself became an object of national derision. (“It looks like you’re wearing a toupee that’s also wearing a toupee,” Amy Poehler cracked on “SNL.”) The entire country wanted to wash him away like shower scum.
Blagojevich knew he couldn’t rescue himself from impeachment. After years of feuding with lawmakers, he was a marked man. So, at the opening of his impeachment trial last Monday, he looked ahead to his criminal trial and broke his silence with a brazen media blitz (“The View,” Diane Sawyer, Larry King, Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck, and more than a dozen other interviews) that might have rescued him from impending jail time. "I refused to accept what some of these people want me to do, and that is to quit, hide in a corner, adopt a fetal position and act like I did something wrong," Blagojevich told The New Republic yesterday in an interview. Though he was widely mocked for the aggressiveness of his media appearances--David Letterman: “Why exactly are you here? Honest to God ...”--Blagojevich’s spokesman, Glenn Selig, says there was a method to his madness: “Public opinion is very important. The jurors are members of the public … The public barely knew the guy. I think their minds are now open.” In other words, what may have seemed a laughable series of PR stunts has in fact been a tremendous success. Where did Blago go right?
First, he was able to point to the blurry line between criminal corruption and the traditional horse-trading of politics. He could say that he wasn’t negotiating in a vacuum but repeatedly called for the release of the tapes, telling King: “There were a whole bunch of conversations and discussions. And I had conversations with powerful people in America.” He couldn’t deny his famously profane appraisal of a Senate seat, but he could question whether his late-night bull sessions with advisers amounted to criminal conduct or were substantially worse than the usual self-dealing among politicians.
When Governor David Paterson was considering appointing Caroline Kennedy to the Senate, various media outlets reported that Paterson wanted a candidate who could raise money for him and other New York Democrats. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg refused to vacate his seat and accept the job of commerce secretary until he won an agreement that a Republican would complete his term. When Hillary Clinton was winding down her campaign last summer, it was assumed she was negotiating the terms of surrender: a high-level White House post or a pledge from Obama that he would help her retire her campaign debt. To be sure, the wiretap transcripts suggest that Blagojevich’s considerations were often less political than financial. But Blagojevich at least raised the question of a double-standard. The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson was among a number of pundits who viewed the charges against the governor in a broader context. As Robinson put it in a recent column: “In some circles, this is known as politics. Cover the children's ears.”
But if Blagojevich had simply denied criminal wrongdoing and slipped back into hiding, he wouldn’t have made a dent in public opinion. The quoting of Kipling and Tennyson, the lonesome jogs against the wintry elements, and the self-dramatizing interviews helped give Blagojevich a Rocky Balboa veneer. As Blagojevich reveled in his outlaw fame and thumbed his nose at the Illinois Legislature and the rest of the Democratic establishment by ramming through his appointment of Roland Burris, it became harder to make fun of him, or at least to despise him. “[I]'m enamored of him,” comedian Dennis Miller told Bill O’Reilly. “I love it when he stands there, and he brings up the Mahatma … And I think to myself, I cannot believe the cojones this guy has.” The political press corps also ate up Blagojevich’s performance. “I think he should be a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian,” says Dana Milbank of The Washington Post. Even Letterman's sardonic grilling concealed CBS’s eager interest in getting him on his show.
“What I could have said to him was, ‘Well, you invited me,’ but I didn’t,” Blagojevich told TNR. “They’ve been asking for weeks since this all broke.” (For the record, Blagojevich insists there’s no hard feelings between him and Letterman. “I like David Letterman more today than I did yesterday. He was pretty tough. He’s witty, and then he’s got that audience. He clearly had home-field advantage … I said to him, “Boy, this audience really loves you. What you just said isn’t funny, and they’re laughing.’” The ex-governor, in fact, had kind words about many of his recent interrogators: “I like Larry King a lot. He’s a very kind man. I liked Whoopi Goldberg, Joy Behar, and the woman on ‘The View.’ I like them, too.”)
Ironically, Blagojevich was aided by the notorious reputation that preceded his indictment. Illinois was already quite familiar with his old-school backroom antics. “I come out of the alleys of Chicago politics,” he told The New York Times. “That's a tough place. The politics there is not motivated by idealism or high purpose. It’s nuts and bolts, and you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. I came up that way.” Blagojevich was liberated from the charges of hypocrisy that tormented politicians like Eliot Spitzer, who cracked down on prostitution rings, and Larry Craig, who fought against gay marriage. In his interviews, Blagojevich came across as a man clearly comfortable in his own skin. Blagojevich, in the words of Miller, “embraced his inner dirtbag.”
Still, not everybody’s on the Blago bandwagon. “He has become a media star, warmly and affectionately treated by people who ought to know better,” wrote David Broder, taking to task his colleagues Robinson and Milbank for treating the former governor as a “lovable rascal.” (Robinson, in an e-mail, says he stands by his column. “[T]here's a difference between being a lousy governor and being a criminal. Blagojevich is probably both, but I don't think Patrick Fitzgerald has proved the criminal part yet.”) But it’s hard not to admit that Blagojevich put on quite a good show--and that potential jurors might have been as charmed as all those commentators.
Jacob Gershman is the former Albany correspondent for The New York Sun.
By Jacob Gershman