Illinois’ Imelda

Blago proves better at buying than selling out

Illinois’ Imelda
Former governor Rod Blagojevich, with his wife Patti, right, at his trial in Chicago

First, the public confession. “My name is Milorad Blagojevich, and I’m a shopaholic.” Next comes the recovery, and the book recounting how he hit bottom – a landing cushioned by piles of $200 neckties but painful nonetheless – and then the announcement that he’s been named host of the daytime talk show on Lifetime.

Finally. A fitting post-gubernatorial career for Rod Blagojevich.

Peeking through the keyhole we are getting at the trial of the former governor in Chicago federal court, we see him and his wife spending more for clothes than for food, their home mortgage or school tuition for their two daughters. We hear the whining complaint that he might not be able to afford college for them. And we listen in on the grubby ranking of public service opportunities by the salary each pays.

Those of delicate conscience – visiting Minnesotans, for example – might find this intrusion into the private affairs of even a disgraced former chief executive unseemly. Blagojevich ran up a tab of $205,706 with Oxxford, a Chicago tailor of custom suits. That is a private peccadillo, and none of our business. That Blagojevich also arranged a state job for the Oxxford executive who handled the governor’s tailoring account – that’s a public misdemeanor that is very much our business.

Illinois commentators might have been expected to react with glee, pointing to such behavior and crying, “I told you so.” Only most of them didn’t, at least not when he was running for office and it might have done some good. More of the punditariat seem less astonished that Blago spent $200 on neckties than that one can spend $200 for a necktie. They forget that in an advanced consumer economy such as ours, a fair price for anything is whatever the biggest fool is willing to pay for it. In Illinois, where buying a statewide office paying a salary of $125,000 a year costs a candidate $5 million, $200 for a tie is a bargain.

Yes, the Chicago Tribune tagged him as the “Imelda Marcos of Illinois” in a headline, but their hearts weren’t in it. It is all so sordid, so pathetic, so small. Instead of the sinister fixer, we got a dufus who is bumbling, needy and delusional. As an Illinoisan I was embarrassed. I have taken to asking my out-of-state friends not to judge us by this bush-league ticket-fixer. If you want an example of the real Illinois political pro, look at someone like Mike Madigan. The speaker is much too savvy to make Blago’s error of trying to sell something – in his case a U.S. Senate seat – that didn’t belong to him. The speaker is content to sell something that does belong to him – access – which is worth much more.

Blago is not Illinois’ first Imelda, but its fourth or fifth Joel – as in Joel Matteson, the state’s governor from 1853 to 1857. Like Blago, Matteson found the then-governor’s official residence in Springfield a not nearly grand enough package for a prize such as himself. The new guv insisted that the State of Illinois pony up for a proper executive mansion, and not just any Executive Mansion, but the largest and most ornate yet seen in the West.

Alas, the state constitution limited Matteson’s use of the house to one term, so he built an even grander house across the street from the Executive Mansion. As nicely described by Erika Holst in her Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption and Scandal During the Lincoln Era, this “sprawling Italianate monstrosity” had 14 bedrooms, oil frescoes adorning the drawing rooms, a gardener’s cottage, a conservatory, a grape arbor and a sunken garden. How he was able to pay for it became clear three years after he left office, when it was learned that Matteson had redeemed nearly $250,000 worth of state notes for state bonds.

It is not government in which we find most Blagojeviches these days but business. The former governor is the kid brother of a Dennis Kowlowski, the former Tyco CEO who bilked owners of that firm out of $600 million and used some of it to throw a $2 million toga party for his wife’s birthday and buy a $6,000 shower curtain for his New York penthouse.

Blagojevich himself would have been better off had he rejected politics for a career in business, where complacent regulators let people possessed of energy and flexible morals steal legally. Sadly for him, and Illinois, it is impossible to see him in a corporate setting – not because he lacks scruple but because he lacks discipline in his unscrupulousness. He’s a born huckster; if he could sell himself to Illinois voters twice, think how he would do selling phony retirement schemes to seniors. That would have made him rich, but his behavior has more to do with neediness than greediness. Money talks; alas for poor Rod, it doesn’t applaud.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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