When the fat lady sings, there are advantages to watching through the wrong end of the opera glasses. Up close, the Blagojevich scandal is almost overwhelming. The FBI cuffed the governor at the crack of dawn on December 9, and a few hours later U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald accused him of a "political corruption crime spree." The media reacted to Fitzgerald's news conference like a football team given a pregame pep talk for the ages—reporters charged into the streets ready to rock 'n' roll.
In Chicago the story had too many angles to count, and the biggest was the constitutional crisis. Would the governor everyone now repudiates resign? Would he be impeached—and how quickly? Could Lisa Madigan charm the supreme court into dumping him? But wasn't she thinking of running for governor herself—and wasn't her father, the speaker of the house, the governor's archnemesis? And weren't the justices just pols in robes? If there is anyone in the state with clean hands, please notify the public. We have an emergency here!
With the details of the Blagojevich scandal, the Chicago papers have been giddily effusive. But for cool, lucid commentary, I was struck by a couple of op-eds in the New York Times. Distance, after all, doesn't simply lend perspective; distance requires it.
"Mind-boggling," wrote Scott Turow, author and former prosecutor, the morning after the Blago eruption. Turow is Chicago's own but his forum was the Times, and his unboggled mind was narrowly focused on Fitzgerald's case. He found matters "worrisome"—but not because Illinois was being led by a man whose culpability was being taken for granted and whose sanity was being openly debated. What worried Turow was that the governor's "shameless behavior seems to have put [Fitzgerald] into the unenviable position of having to bring a case before he was ready."
Turow seemed to have listened a little more carefully and reacted a little more deliberately to what Fitzgerald had to say. He wrote that Fitzgerald normally shows an "almost obsessive desire" to nail down his evidence before returning charges and a considerable reluctance to interfere with the workings of government. For example: Fitzgerald had withheld the indictment of former governor George Ryan until Ryan left office. And Fitzgerald indicated at his news conference that he'd originally intended to indict Blagojevich next spring, by which time the Obama administration already would have decided whether it wanted Fitzgerald to stay on as U.S. attorney.
But Fitzgerald didn't wait. So Turow concluded that the U.S. attorney felt he had no choice but to act immediately—to keep the governor from selling the Senate seat. (This was the specific conduct that elicited the sound bite about making "Lincoln roll over in his grave.") "Given Mr. Fitzgerald's frank appeal for information from the public at his news conference," Turow wrote, "it's obvious that his case is not fully buttoned up."
Two days later, Barry Coburn, a former prosecutor also writing in the Times, called the case worse than unbuttoned. Coburn wrote that Fitzgerald's language at the news conference had tainted the case and made a fair trial less likely: "It is hard to feel comfortable with Mr. Fitzgerald's remarks... that Mr. Blagojevich's conduct amounted to a 'political corruption crime spree' and 'would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,' that 'the breadth of corruption laid out in these charges is staggering,' that Mr. Blagojevich 'put a "for sale" sign on the naming of a United States senator' and that his conduct was 'cynical' and 'appalling' and has 'taken us to a truly new low.'"
These comments, Coburn went on, "are, to put it mildly, remarkably inflammatory [and] clearly run afoul of the rules."
They inflamed, all right. Chicago's media and political establishment erupted—over the venal language attributed to the governor in the criminal complaint and Fitzgerald's blunt language as he announced it. Language plunged the state into crisis, not incontrovertible evidence.
We might see the idea suggested by the Times op-eds—that Fitzgerald compromised his own prosecution to sound an alarm—as the path not taken by the hordes of local reporters much less interested in legal nuance than political drama. But Cam Simpson, a former Tribune reporter working for the Wall Street Journal, followed the path to an intriguing conclusion. In a piece the paper published on Monday, he wrote that the case against Blagojevich was compromised not by Fitzgerald but by the Tribune, with its December 5 front-page story "Trib exclusive: Feds taped Blagojevich." This was "according to people close to the investigation and a careful reading of the FBI's affidavit in the case."
Simpson noted that on December 4 Blagojevich allegedly "said he was giving 'greater consideration' to one potential senator [Jesse Jackson Jr.], because of a willingness to raise money." Blagojevich allegedly "told his brother to meet with someone (unidentified in the affidavit) whom the pair believed to be close to Mr. Jackson and urged his brother to ask for contributions right away." But the next day the Tribune ran its story—"and then the meeting was off."
An early version of the story posted Sunday night on the Journal's Washington Wire blog included more detail. Simpson wrote, "Members of Fitzgerald's team are livid the scheme didn't advance, at least for a little longer.... Why? Because had the plot unfolded, they might have had an opportunity most feds can only dream of: A chance to catch the sale of a Senate seat on tape, including the sellers and the buyers."
Robert Grant, special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, called WLS's Don Wade and Roma show first thing Monday morning and said Simpson had it wrong.
Fair Is Foul, and Foul Is Fair . . .
A political scandal in which a sitting governor is accused of trying to sell off the Senate seat just vacated by the president-elect and squeeze the local media baron into firing his editorial board sounds like a story that already has everything it needs. But a femme fatale never hurts.
Which is why the contributions of the Tribune's Stacy St. Clair to the Blagojevich blockbuster cannot be overstated. St. Clair's story on December 10 began: "An unflattering portrait depicting Illinois first lady Patricia Blagojevich as a modern-day Lady Macbeth who plotted against her husband's perceived enemies and backed his corrupt schemes emerged in court documents connected to the governor's arrest."
The saga already had legs. St. Clair gave it wings. Her comparison was quoted everywhere. Here's London's Independent on December 12: "As the controversy surrounding the disgraced Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich, grew yesterday, attention fell on a woman described as 'a modern-day Lady Macbeth': Patricia Blagojevich." And here's Chicago native Jacob Weisberg on Slate a day later: "With Rod Blagojevich and his wife, Patricia—Lady Macbeth of Milwaukee Avenue—Illinois' corruption has gone carnival."
For the record, Patti Blagojevich was not caught on tape taunting her husband to screw his courage to the sticking point and murder his rivals. But vivid language doesn't shrink from niggling details, and if I'd been St. Clair's editor and the Lady Macbeth analogy had occurred to me, I'm sure I would have passed it on.
That's exactly what happened. Assistant political editor Eric Krol gave St. Clair both the assignment and the notion. The idea of P. Blago as an L. Macbeth had lingered in the back of his head for some time, and this was most definitely the occasion.
How much did it add to St. Clair's story? Consider, for comparison's sake, this hapless attempt by somebody else to render the governor's wife: "And you can't leave out the supporting cast. Mrs. Blago curses like the inmate working the cafeteria at a women's prison who replies with an f-bomb to anyone objecting to a leaden ladle-thwack of unidentifiable green mush on their lunch tray."
As an act of kindness, I won't identify the writer.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites.