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Blagojevich: Think Socrates, Not Icarus

The Governor isn’t mythological material, though it contains plenty of myth. But it’s a fine warning on the pitfalls of democracy.


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Everybody's already said his piece on Rod Blagojevich's book The Governor, and it's fair to say the reactions have been largely unfavorable. State rep Jack Franks told USA Today that the book, like Blago himself, was full of fibs. "His legacy is one of corruption, it's one of scandal, it's one of shame," he said. The Trib's John Kass mocked Blagojevich for his awkward and sometimes imprecise allusions to Greek myth and Shakespeare and posited that the book was nothing more than a maneuver to improve his prospects in court. "It's all very frightening, with Blago the tragic hero of every story, until you realize that he's just seeding the jury pool," he wrote. And then there was the local politician I told that I was reading the book. "Jesus, why?" he asked. "The guy's a psychopath."

But the suggestion that Blagojevich has an elusive grasp of the facts or that he lacks the literary chops to write a great memoir is really beside the point. Of course the book isn't good by any conventional standard—what do you expect from an impeached politico desperate for cash while awaiting his corruption trial? But that doesn't mean it's not interesting. I'd even go so far as to call it important.

Part of The Governor's problem is that it's been miscast. It's not a memoir so much as it is an apology—an apology not in the sense of a statement of remorse but in the classical sense of a statement of defense against accusers. Arguably the finest example of an apologia is the one presented by Socrates, and written down by Plato, when Socrates was on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens with his irreverence and refusal to worship the state-sanctioned gods.

Blagojevich has been ridiculed for comparing himself to Icarus, Teddy Roosevelt, and George Bailey from It's a Wonderful Life, so there probably aren't many readers who'd tolerate the notion that he's got anything in common with Socrates. But Blago's story—that is, the version of it that he's trying to sell—shares a big theme with the philosopher's. Both are about the potential excesses of democracy, the kinds of things that can happen when majority rule warps into mob rule. When the masses become hysterical, they can come to believe that a philosopher who questions the conventional wisdom is an enemy of the state who has to be executed, or, as Blago sees it, that a governor who's obsessed with expanding health care is a lawbreaker who deserves to be removed from office.

Let's just say that the available evidence—which The Governor frequently glosses over or avoids altogether—suggests that Blago's account doesn't quite square with what really happened. But he's still got a right to make his case. Blagojevich wants us to believe as vehemently as he does that he was framed by his father-in-law, 33rd Ward alderman and political boss Richard Mell, because he refused to dole out jobs and favors to Mell and his minions (see Ben Joravsky's piece); that Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan thwarted his agenda in order to pave the way to the governor's mansion for his daughter, attorney general Lisa Madigan; that convicted Blagojevich advisers Tony Rezko and Lon Monk orchestrated pay-to-play schemes while the governor was busy trying to help "the people"; that those infamous recordings that appeared to catch the governor selling Barack Obama's old Senate seat were taken out of context; that he was actually trying to cut a deal that would bring jobs and health insurance to his constituents; that he was the target of a witch hunt by U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald; and that the media was so eager for juicy headlines that it aided and abetted all of these injustices.

These and other conspiracy theories would completely bog down the narrative if not for Blago's hilarious voice as a writer. Sometimes he's funny on purpose, and sometimes he's just funny. Recounting his stint in the Illinois legislature in the early 1990s, he claims that most legislators simply follow the orders of their party leaders, leaving them with lots of time to party. "I hate to say it," he writes, "but a lot of the men and some of the women who make the laws in Illinois are hungover when they're doing it." His 1999 trip to Serbia to free American POWs left him impressed with the self-promotion skills of mission leader Jesse Jackson: "Whenever there was a camera around he would position and muscle and throw elbows around like he was a power forward fighting for a rebound." After his January arrest, Blago's Ravenswood Manor home was surrounded by reporters and camera crews, which he says put great stress on his family. "Sometimes I wonder if instead we might have been better off being conquered and occupied by Genghis Khan and his hordes. At least then we wouldn't have had to be on television."

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss this as the bizarre rambling of a governor who went "cuckoo," as Mayor Daley put it last winter.

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Blagojevich clearly hopes to convince "the people" that he did nothing wrong, but along the way he inadvertently makes a far more powerful argument that it's the people who fell down on the job by electing him to do a job he had no business doing, time and time again.

In 1992, when he was an undistinguished city lawyer, Alderman Mell drafted him to run for the Illinois House so Mell could take out a rival. Blagojevich says that when he asked whether he could take his own positions on issues, Mell told him, "I don't give a fuck about that." But Blagojevich was as disinterested in the workings of government as Mell was in crafting policy, and he ceded management of his office and reelection campaigns to others, including his father-in-law's precinct workers and wealthy benefactors like Rezko.

Blagojevich went on to win a seat in Congress, where he operated in much the same way. Yet after just three years in Washington, he was already thinking of moving up, even though, as he notes, "my only real accomplishment to date was the naming of a post office after a slain Chicago police officer." His legislative record didn't get any more impressive, but in 2002, after six years in Congress, he was elected governor thanks to Mell's wheeling and dealing and the prolific fund-raising of Rezko and Christopher Kelly.

As Mell was thinking he might be able to take this thing all the way to the White House, Blagojevich realized that his new job consisted of more than campaigning. "Shortly after I was elected governor," he writes, "I began to really start thinking about what I wanted to do with the office." Note to current and future gubernatorial candidates: it might be helpful to consider that before you decide to run.

As a purported fan of the classics, Blagojevich should have been able to recognize that his story is all about hubris. Mell thought he was smart enough to make a candidate of a guy he found in his living room, get him elected to any office he wanted, and enjoy the spoils. Rezko and Kelly thought they were smart enough to buy their own access to those spoils. Blagojevich thought he was smart enough to use Mell and Rezko and their ilk to get where he wanted, then pretend they didn't exist while he spouted platitudes on TV and left the business of running the state to his aides.

It turned out that none of them were smart at all. When they were all working toward the same prize—winning the office—everything went off fine. But victory just made them greedier for the jobs and contracts and influence that came with it, and they went after one another with knives. Voters didn't see it coming until it was too late.

This has happened before (cough George W. Bush) and, more disturbing, it will surely happen again. The politician who told me Blago was a psychopath went on to add that his rise wasn't improbable or unusual. "Most people who get into this business are chosen by somebody to run because they have nice teeth to show when they smile, they're good at shaking hands, and they can recite a few talking points. You'd be surprised how often it happens."

Near the end of his book Blagojevich reiterates that he's the victim of a miscarriage of justice. His argument isn't terribly convincing, but in presenting it he again makes a critical point without intending to: democracy can be just as dangerous when the masses are disengaged as when they're forming angry mobs. "For most of my life I saw the threat to our liberties as coming from our enemies abroad," he writes. "Now, for the first time in my life, I can fully appreciate and see how our liberties as citizens can be threatened from within."

Me too.


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