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Send In the Clowns

Everybody's got something to say about Illinois politics, but nobody's saying it funny enough.

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Americans who had never heard of Roland Burris—and that would be just about everybody outside Illinois—know him now as the man with the tombstone. The tombstone identifies him as a familiar type, the sort of fellow who back in high school joined nerdy organizations like French club and toastmasters and ran for vice president, an office that came with none of the responsibilities of the president but took up just as much space in the yearbook. The objective of a guy like this was to amass such a long list of activities next to his senior picture that posterity would mistake him for someone popular.

"Trail Blazer," reads the stately Burris tombstone in Oak Woods Cemetery on the south side. "First African-American in Illinois to Become"—and then a lengthy list is provided. It begins with "Illinois Attorney General 1991-95" and works its way down to "S.I.U. Exchange Student to University of Hamburg, Germany 1959-60," which is the rough equivalent of "Junior year secretary-treasurer, Xerography Club." None of Burris's trailblazing is too insignificant to be etched in granite, and he's left plenty of space for "U.S. senator appointed by a corrupt and discredited governor in the process of being impeached."

(A colleague argues that the primary reason for padding one's high school extracurriculars is to get into a better college. Perhaps Burris aspires to a better heaven.)

I believe that if Senate leaders like Harry Reid tell Burris he won't be named to any Senate committees and can't have an office, and in fact ought to go back to Chicago and not wait by the telephone either, Burris will be fine with it so long as they swear him in first. The lack of duties will free up time to seize other trailblazing opportunities his new fame brings his way, such as "Senate nominee engaging in mud fight on Jerry Springer with assorted Illinois politicians."

I thank the Tribune's John Kass for making the Springer suggestion in a recent column. Kass is not a natural satirist, but as Rod Blagojevich diverts America from its miseries with a once-in-a-century cavalcade of political slapstick, he's doing his best to rise to the occasion. It's a darned shame that so few pundits are proving equal to it.

"Political circuses just don't get any better than this," acknowledged the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne Jr., beginning a January 2 column on the Burris appointment. He circled back to this idea in his conclusion: "Treating this appointment as a clever circus act makes more sense than taking it seriously." Alas, everything in between was pretty serious. Dionne knew he ought to be whooping it up, but he didn't try—he just doesn't have the chops.

Who does? Kass, as I said, is giving it his all, tagging Rod Blagojevich "Gov. Dead Meat" and informing a blissed-out America that the president-elect "was not found as an infant, floating in a reed basket along the banks of the Chicago River." The trouble is, Kass has all the anger great satire requires but not the light touch. He can't help himself—he hectors.

In mid-December, soon after Blago became the national laughingstock, Chicago native Jonathan Alter wrote a piece for Newsweek that said, Mike Royko, we need you now. "He was the guy who could have explained Rod Blagojevich to a dumbstruck world," mourned Alter, pining for Kass's predecessor at the Tribune. "It's impossible to know exactly how the great man would be feasting on this story—this one's a 10-course meal."

To what other vintage wits has the nation turned its lonely eyes? I had a hunch. A Google search led me to the MSN blog Top Stocks, where the topic under discussion was "How much does a US Senate seat cost?" and, sure enough, someone had posted, "Mark Twain said it best when asked if he votes. 'No. It just encourages them.'" And on January 2 at American Thinker, chief political correspondent Richard Baehr offered the wistful observation, "In some of his columns, the humorist Dave Barry will throw in a comment to describe some completely ridiculous event or behavior: 'I am not making this up.' It would be nice to have Dave Barry blogging the Illinois Senate appointment story."

It would. So I googled Barry and Blagojevich. But all I found was this, in Barry's end-of-the-year roundup: "In other political news, federal authorities arrest Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod "Rod" Blagojevich after wiretaps reveal that he was... OK, that he was being the governor of Illinois. Everybody is very, very shocked."

The cupboard isn't totally bare. Carl Hiaasen wrote a dialogue—distributed by Tribune Media Services and carried in the Tribune—between Blagojevich and Satan.

Blagojevich: "Here's how the deal would go down—I'd get the Cabinet post, you'd get my soul for all eternity. What do you say?"

Satan: "What would I want with a shriveled little prune of a soul like yours? Scumbags are a dime a dozen."

Blagojevich: "Geez, how sleazy does a guy have to be?"

Satan: "Rod, you should have come to me a year ago, before Lehman tanked and AIG went boobs-up. Now I've got more lowlifes than I've got cots."

Decent execution of a lazy idea Royko wouldn't have bothered with. Royko wrote from the far side of the looking glass, the place where logic runs backward. A fair example of this point of view is the column Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published the day after Blagojevich was arrested.

McClellan read the same federal complaint that had Chicago aghast and proclaimed, "At first I saw nothing but good news for the governor." Accusation one: Blagojevich was peddling Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat and was picked up on tape calling it "a (blanking) valuable thing." Well, duh, wrote McClellan. "That happens to be a fact. Do you know how much money it takes to run for the U.S. Senate?"

Accusation two: the governor tried to muscle the Tribune into firing some of its editorial writers. "The public is supposed to care about that?" McClellan marveled. "A defense attorney would have an easy time with that one. He'd talk about editorial writers sitting in their ivory towers, writing their little editorials, telling people who to vote for. (Or, as an editorial writer might say, telling people for whom to vote.) Why shouldn't a governor use his muscle on these people?"

But McClellan finally spotted trouble for the Gov in the now famous Patti eruption. McClellan explained that as Patti Blagojevich's husband and an aide talked by phone about how to exploit the Tribune Company's urgent need to sell Wrigley Field (by demanding the heads of those nasty editorial writers), she "can be heard in the background telling Rod Blagojevich to tell Deputy Governor A to 'hold up that forking Cubs stuff.... Fork them.'"

"Fork the Cubs?" exclaimed McClellan. "The good people of Illinois are not going to stand for that!... The governor's only hope is to turn state's evidence and testify against his wife. Maybe the feds have charged the wrong Blagojevich."

It was a nice try, but Royko would have known the love this state holds for the Cubs shrinks fast south of Madison Street. If McClellan had massaged his idea he might have come up with this finale: Blagojevich, sensing that his name is finally starting to fade from the front pages of the world's great newspapers, holds a news conference to announce that the only reason the feds are indicting him is to get to his wife, but the dirty scheme won't work because a man of his "testicular nobility" (as he'd put it) would gladly rot in prison before saying a word against the woman he loves—no matter what terrible things she did that he knew nothing about.

And on his own tombstone he could show Burris how it's done: "Husband. Statesman. Martyr."v

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

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