On June 27, 2011, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted and sentenced to prison for 17 political crimes committed against the people of Illinois. The press called it “corruption.” This isn’t an article about the history of corruption in Illinois, though (that would take at least a book to write). It’s about Blagojevich’s rise and fall, and also how American history is full of so-called corruption.
Blagojevich himself is a product of Chicago. He was born there (his parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia) and played basketball and boxed as a youth. (He had a 6-1 record when he called it quits.) He went to Northwestern and earned his law degree at Pepperdine way out in Malibu, Calif. As with most politicians, he started out as a government prosecutor.
Blagojevich, who voted for Reagan twice as a youth, was elected to Congress in 1992 as a Democrat and spent 10 years in Washington before running for governor in Illinois (one of his last votes was on the Iraq War, which he voted in favor of).
Federal agents arrested Blagojevich at his home in Chicago on Dec. 9, 2008, and charged the governor with dozens of crimes. A month later Blagojevich was impeached and barred from ever holding public office again. Among his corruption charges was attempting to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder.
The only crime Blagojevich truly committed, though, was being too forthright about what his job as a politician entailed. The poor scoundrel was too honest in the end. A better politician would have never admitted that his senate appointment was about money. Blagojevich, who spent his youth on the basketball courts and in the boxing rings of Chicago, just didn’t understand, tacitly, how the American political system works.
It took three years for federal prosecutors to send Blagojevich away for crimes that politicians commit every day. In that time the former governor, perhaps ominously, used the media to the best of his advantage. He appeared on Letterman, The View, Good Morning America, and a host of other television shows to loudly proclaim his innocence. He appeared in theatre and at celebrity charity galas. Blagojevich went on all the partisan news channels to maintain his innocence. Perhaps the most interesting place he appeared was on Celebrity Apprentice, where one Donald Trump fired Blagojevich just four episodes into the show.
He sits in prison today, a federal one in Colorado to be exact, but Rod Blagojevich continues to make headlines.
For myself, Blagojevich’s example is really a wonderful one: ask yourself if you should not try to better understand “politics,” and American history in general, with Rod Blagojevich - the son of immigrants from a Communist country in Eastern Europe - as your example. What if all politicians were as honest as Rod? Things might not be any better (or worse), but I think we’d all be a little bit more satisfied with our institutions and our expectations of those institutions.