From The Archive
Matt Taibbi
No. 18  December 2009

Blood Drive

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Rod Blagojevich, The Governor: The Truth Behind the Political Scandal That Continues To Rock the Nation (Phoenix, $24.95)

One of the first rules of book reviewing is that unless murder is involved, you can’t slam any book written by a guy who’s under indictment and just trying to make a few last bucks for his family before he goes to spend the next 36 months painting road signs. And that goes double, in the genteel reviewing world, if (let’s just say) the book was written as part of a defense strategy, as a blatant attempt to poison the federal jury pool with 260 pages of horseshit platitudes about the terrible frame job that’s going to destroy the author’s life—and presumably send his two prepubescent daughters careening down the path to eventual porn stardom, or similar just-in-time celebrity cash-in stratagems.

Your average critic should respect any effort in that direction—again, provided murder isn’t involved. After all, who among us might not one day face federal corruption charges for trying to brazenly sell a newly elected president’s vacated Senate seat from the governor’s chair, through a mountain of expletives, over an FBI wiretap? That’s why it was okay for anyone and everyone to thrash O.J. Simpson’s I Want to Tell You as the most revoltingly self-serving, intellectually retarded, villainously narcissistic memoir ever written, but why I personally feel uncomfortable knocking former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s new unofficial pretrial brief, The Governor, Phoenix Books, 2009, which for a variety of reasons having nothing to do with literary quality happens actually to be a very interesting book.

By their very nature, books written by people in Blagojevich’s position are untruthful, desperate, and stylistically uninteresting; they are written for the purely pragmatic purpose of helping the author pay off his legal fees and other debts, stay out of jail, or both. Ripping these efforts for being the dully outrageous claptrap they usually are is as unfair as slagging some ex-NFL player’s lethargic performance in a state-mandated “Just Say No” television ad. After all, the truly excellent political jailbird books (like G. Gordon Liddy’s Will) have almost all debuted after the court process is over, the sentence has been handed down, and the author has given up all hope of being politically viable again. In other words, they’re able to capitalize on the fleeting moment when the author feels free to tell the complete truth for once in his or her life.

I somehow doubt that will ever happen to Rod Blagojevich—as natural a born liar as this country has seen in decades—but that doesn’t mean The Governor doesn’t have its moments. Blagojevich’s book is at times a truly brilliant piece of crisis politics, designed on the one hand to provide a plausible defense scenario to the public (this part of the book is not brilliant but merely ridiculous) and on the other to shoot a giant Saturn V rocket of pure fear straight into Barack Obama’s White House (and, by extension, into the upper echelons of his Justice Department; it’s this part of the book that is much more interesting).

As far as the latter project goes, the book’s powerful and unmistakable between-the-lines message is I know a lot of shit and am not afraid to spill it if you really plan to go through with this. It’s a message sent from a psychological state we seldom see a prominent politician reach—a rare pitch of public desperation that provokes the disgraced pol to spill his guts while he still holds some viable cards. In order for that message to hit its target, said politician has to show that he’s willing to reveal any and all compromising information—and most emphatically, his own role in accelerating the race to the bottom of the public trough—when the time comes.

Blago achieves this paradoxically civic-minded aim by being not only candid but viciously, delightedly, destructively candid about the misdeeds of the many minor characters he skewers in this book, in particular his own father-in-law Dick Mell (a once-powerful Chicago alderman) and a host of other ward-heelers who have worked the Chicago-Springfield axis to their great professional advantage.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that all of these corrosive insights are aimed at one person: Barack Obama.

Like the wiretap transcripts that got Blagojevich arrested in the first place—for instance the one where he says a Senate seat is a “fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing”—Blago’s book at times offers an HD-quality look at the way politics really operates in this country. The best passages involve Mell, who has repeatedly feuded with Blagojevich, apparently over the insufficiently enormous amount of payola the governor allegedly forked over to his father-in-law after winning election in 2002. In one hilarious passage, Blagojevich details his father-in-law’s efforts to get into the landfill business, and his rage at Blago for shit-canning a potentially lucrative waste-management deal.

It’s impossible to know how much of Blago’s version of this story is true—his goo-goo account holds that he opposed Mell’s effort to overturn rulings blocking the project out of a selfless concern for the environment. But one detail rings very amusingly true:

So [Mell] came to our house when I wasn’t there and dropped off a colored brochure of a house he wanted to buy in Sanibel Island, Florida. The purpose of his visit was to tell his daughter that I killed his deal. And he wanted to know what our plans were to help him afford to purchase that house . . .

Elsewhere, Blago recounts an episode with which he is able to burn both Mell and former Republican Governor George Ryan at the same time. He claims that the two of them conspired to surreptitiously raise taxes by getting the lame-duck Ryan to push through an income tax hike in advance of Blago’s swearing-in for his first term in office. Blago recounts Ryan approaching him at a dinner at the governor’s mansion just after governor-elect Blagojevich had beaten him in 2002:

He told me he spoke to my father-in-law and another prominent Chicago alderman about an idea where he could get the Legislature to approve a big income tax increase on the people immediately before I was sworn in as governor. He told me he would be prepared to take the heat for the income tax increase, and I would have all the money I needed to balance the budget . . .

In these and other sections where Blago is not indulging his self-regarding view of his own (inevitably noble) actions, but rather examining those of the corrupt favor-traders surrounding him on all sides in Illinois politics, he is entertainingly blunt about the corruption of our political system. In fact, in Blago’s graphic descriptions of how things actually work behind the scenes (even his historical descriptions of Chicago’s votes-for-jobs political schemes are weirdly compelling), he’s more revealing than virtually all of our journalists. And there’s no doubt whatsoever that all of these corrosive insights are aimed at one person: Barack Obama.

Blago makes this clear enough when he chooses to open The Governor with a scene from Obama’s inauguration. He mentions Obama just two sentences into the book and by the fourth paragraph is already plumbing his personal relationship with Illinois’ favorite son. Blagojevich goes on to describe, in a curiously flowery way, the contrast between Obama’s inaugural triumph and his own misery. “He heard the multitudes roar with approval . . . I’m hearing the sound of a heavy metal iron door unbolting, opening the lockup, and then the sound of it closing . . . [Obama is] like Zeus in Greek mythology, on top of Mount Olympus. And I’m Icarus, who flew too close to the sun.”

The message is obvious: While poor Blago—a visionary Icarus—goes to jail, Obama gets everything. But maybe that can change, our singed and chastened hero reasons, if I decide to open my mouth; maybe I can take a few people down with me—perhaps even overindulged, undeserving Zeus himself.

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The specific threat that Blago is trying to deliver to the president in The Governor is never made explicit, but a close reading of the text suggest a number of potential avenues of, um, persuasion. One of the few concrete accusations he sends in the direction of Obama’s people involves the now-infamous 2008 exchanges between then-candidate Obama’s staff and Blagojevich over Illinois politicos whom the governor might appoint to fill Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

The story that federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald tells in his indictment of Blagojevich—copiously borne out by the wiretap transcripts—is in the grand Chicago tradition of open graft. Blagojevich is trying frantically to sell the Senate seat to Obama’s people, who apparently wanted African-American lawyer Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidant of the Democratic presidential nominee, to get the spot. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden, and uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” he says, in one such voluble wiretapped call. Later on, Blago deputy John Harris is heard negotiating with then-aide and now-White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, saying that if Jarrett were to be Blago’s pick, “all we get is appreciation, right?” To which Emanuel says, “Right.”

That’s the Justice Department’s—and the FBI’s—story, But in Blago’s telling, it’s Obama’s people who come to him first. He claims that a Chicago consultant named Marilyn Katz had lunch with Harris in the fall of 2008; in that confab, Blago claims, Katz tendered an offer allegedly approved by the Obama team, to help Blago raise money for his re-election bid if he would choose Jarrett. Later, he claims, Katz tried to schedule a lunch with Blago’s wife to push Jarrett’s candidacy. “I didn’t give much thought to it,” writes Blago now about the offer of campaign support. “I remember mocking it to John Harris. I may even have bemusedly asked the question, isn’t that pay to play?”

That recollection amounts to the only headline-worthy accusation in Blagojevich’s book—together with a little juicy innuendo about Emanuel, who left a Chicago congressional seat to take the Obama chief of staff job. Blago claims that Rahm asked him to nominate a “placeholder” to take Emanuel’s seat in Congress, so that Rahm might one day come back and make a run at the Speaker of the House job should the whole White House chief of staff thing fall through. Blago in the book replies that he is not sure he has the legal authority to do this, which turns out to be the case. This may be bullshit—though Blago is certainly clever enough to know that Rahm’s hyper-ambitious character makes this story believable. Who knows? But either way, it achieves its more immediate purpose: letting Those Who Matter know that Blago is going to tell stories if they decide to keep pushing him toward jail.

Meanwhile, the wheels of Chicago-style justice grind ever-slowly on—but as they advance on our hero, we can still hold out hope that Blago as a convicted and released felon—assuming he is convicted and released—may adopt a genuine fuck-it-all outlook on his torched career and produce a brilliant tell-all book about how gubernatorial politics really works. The potential is there, judging from this early effort, even if the rest of the book—the part aimed at “the people” in which Blago casts himself as an innocent hardworking champion of the common man felled by a prolonged and elaborate frame-up—is not merely preposterous but unreadable.

Fans of the HBO series The Wire who read this book will undoubtedly recognize in Blago’s public appeals for sympathy on the corruption charges—whatever he did, he did because he just loves the people of Illinois so goddamn much an almost flawless impersonation of Isiah Whitlock, Jr.s’ immortal character Clay Davis, a corrupt-as-fuck Maryland state senator. Indeed, the chief differences between the two are incidental: Davis quoted Aeschylus; Blago quotes Shakespeare.

Of course, if you buckle down and try really hard to appreciate Blago’s mawkish pleas for sympathy, they have some appeal as absurdist comedy. The ex-governor possesses a brand of pure shamelessness that is very nearly off the charts, well beyond that of the occasionally self-examining Marion Barry but falling a little short of O.J. My favorite moment of such world-class unself-awareness comes when Blago relates a story from his childhood about how his father punished him and his brother (beating them with a belt the mean old Serb called Svete Ilija, or Saint Eli) when the brother allegedly drank a shot of whiskey following an uncle’s funeral. As Blago tells it, his brother only downed the shot after adult relatives egged him on. The boys were innocent—but the two got punished anyway for their “crimes”:

To this day I have no idea why I got a spanking. What did I do? I didn’t drink the whiskey. I didn’t tell my brother to drink the whiskey . . . But whatever the reason, I now joined my brother in getting my ass kicked.

The set piece abounds with themes foreshadowing his later career. Blago and his brother, after all, would both end up getting snared in his federal corruption scandal. What’s more, the heavy-handed Freudian symbolism of the scene will also play a central role in Blago’s adult drama as (so he imagines) an unfairly maligned criminal suspect. In The Governor, he claims that the public freakout by his father-in-law Mell (his political “father,” if you will) after the landfill fiasco was the main precipitating event behind his persecution. When Mell was venting his rage against his son-in-law, he accused Blago aide Chris Kelly of trading commission appointments for campaign contributions, a charge that Blago now says he’s convinced “ultimately led to the federal prosecutor’s determination to target me and relentlessly pursue and investigate me for the next three and a half years.”

So all these accusations against Rod Blagojevich are the result of a jealous and unreasonable father taking revenge upon his innocent political son. You can believe that, or you can just look up the wiretap transcripts, where Blago says stuff about Obama’s inner circle of advisers like, “They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them.” Either way, the Rod Blagojevich story shows us American politics in a light we don’t often get to see. Justice mayor may not be served by his conviction and imprisonment, but adverse court proceedings will almost certainly help him flesh out the tantalizingly incomplete accounting of his downfall that he’s produced here—if only because it will take a tour behind bars for someone with an ego as outsized as this to realize that civic and literary appreciation will be the best he can hope for.

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