Leverage is something that Illinois’s Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich understands. He does not understand restraint.
That is the impression one gets from his indictment, which was released Monday [PDF]. The 76-page document portrays Blagojevich as more than simply another man in public office seeking to “monetize” his relationships — to prepare for a cushy, well-paid future after leaving government. Most politicians do that, and nearly all of them do it in Illinois. Blagojevich is a special case simply because of his ambition. He had gotten totally out of control.
In the months leading up to his arrest yesterday, Gov. Blagojevich appears to have been a frantic and desperate man, fretting over his personal finances and his legal situation, as he was already under federal investigation. He was shaking down anyone and everyone who sought or needed something from government: Contractors. Sick children. The Chicago Cubs. Candidates for Senate. Even President-Elect Barack Obama.
“Nobody was surprised that Gov. Blagojevich would be indicted,” Republican state senate leader Christine Radogno told National Review Online. “But people are just scratching their heads at the arrogance of this, at the idea that he would talk so freely, with abandon, about selling a Senate seat when he knew the feds were all over him.”
Blagojevich’s attempt to sell Obama back his old Senate seat is the most unusual of his alleged crimes, but also the easiest. For the decision on Obama’s successor was the governor’s alone to make.
The Senate seat, left vacant by Obama’s post-election resignation, would be shopped around, as Blagojevich explained with shocking candor in his taped telephone conversations. He would sell it to the highest bidder, whether that was Obama (who had his own favored candidate) or any of four other potential senators. As Blagojevich put it himself, the Senate seat was “a f***ing valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” The governor claimed he had one offer for campaign cash (from Senate Candidate Number Five).
As late as November 11, Blagojevich felt that Obama’s people were “not willing to give me anything except appreciation. F*** them.” The following day, he discussed another scheme involving Obama with an official from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He would appoint Obama’s choice to the seat in exchange for help from Obama’s “Warren Buffett types” in raising “$10, $15 million” so that he could leave office and land himself a lucrative job with a union-backed non-profit group. Blagojevich was eager to run this idea past an Obama advisor (from the context, it appears to be Rahm Emanuel, the President-Elect’s chief of staff).
It is unclear what sort of reception this offer got from Obama’s staff, if any. But Blagojevich also had a Plan B — to make himself a senator. “I’m going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain,” he said. “You hear what I’m saying. And if I don’t get what I want and I’m not satisfied with it, then I’ll just take the Senate seat myself.”
There is far more to the indictment than the sale of a Senate seat. The indictment tells other recent tales of alleged political extortion as well. For example, Blagojevich was angered by a Chicago Tribune editorial in late September that called for his impeachment. At the urging of his wife, Blagojevich instructed his chief of staff, John Harris (who was also indicted) to solve the problem by threatening the owner of the Tribune Company with the loss of a public financing option in connection with the sale of Wrigley Field (the Tribune owns and is trying to sell the Chicago Cubs). The Tribune Company’s owner, Blagojevich said, could make things right by firing the members of the editorial board who had criticized him.
Blagojevich is also accused in the indictment of threatening to rescind an $8 million state grant for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago because one of the institution’s executives would not give a political contribution.
The 76-page criminal complaint against Blagojevich is strewn with the governor’s profanity from multiple taped conversations with aides, advisers, and others — all of them within the last year. Blagojevich comes off as a delusional man who believed, despite his already-ubiquitous reputation for corruption, that he could perhaps run for president in 2016.
Obama has categorically denied any contact with the governor on this topic. As many have noted, his account was contradicted weeks ago in a television interview by David Axelrod. But even so, there is nothing in the indictment or elsewhere to indicate that Obama was ever privy to the crooked deal for the Senate seat personally. As throughout his entire career, Obama has only been guilty of selling Illinoisans on crooked leaders like Blagojevich — as he has done for Cook County President Todd Stroger, for Mayor Richard M. Daley, and for a variety of minor figures in Chicago’s sordid political culture of self-dealing and corruption.
Obama and Emanuel in fact played major roles as top advisers to Blagojevich’s 2002 gubernatorial campaign. In 2006, Obama endorsed the governor for reelection with kind words that ring as hollow as his promises to change Washington: “We’ve got a governor in Rod Blagojevich who has delivered consistently on behalf of the people of Illinois,” Obama had said.
Given his willingness to crawl into bed with so many unsavory figures, it was only a matter of time before another one of Obama’s political allies would emerge as an embarrassment. And as long as Patrick Fitzgerald remains the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Illinois, it is only a matter of time before another such embarrassment surfaces.
– David Freddoso is a National Review Online staff reporter and author of The Case Against Barack Obama.