A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
When his bizarre public dispute with his father-in-law (Alderman Richard Mell) was front page news, "Blago" justified an impetuous closing of a waste dump that Mell had an interest in and that was owned by a Mell relative by saying, "This is the kind of thing that I think frankly separates the men from the boys in leadership. Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that knowing what's coming your way? I say I do."
-- From the Dec. 10th BuzzFlash Editor’s Blog, "Testicular Virility": BuzzFlash Predicted Feds Would Nail Blagojevich, Now We Predict He'll Plea Bargain to Save His Wife"
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Given our 8 1/12 year perch here in Chicago and the life-long knowledge of Chicago politics of the editor and publisher (as well as personal experience working on progressive advocacy projects with many of the key political figures on the Illinois scene), I was asked to discuss the Blagojevich scandal on about 10 radio programs this past week, including on the Randi Rhodes program, the Ron Reagan show, and on the Internet with the Real News.
One of the challenges of any media interview is distilling big stories into succinct answers, which is especially called for when you are dealing with the ongoing "Blago" saga (Blagojevich’s nickname in Illinois – although he could also just be called "Big Boy, Big Hair"). The Blagojevich era as governor (first elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006) could be a television mini-series called the "Dumbranos."
Since BuzzFlash is the only major progressive daily Internet news and commentary site between the two coasts – and is located in the epicenter of both the Blagojevich story and the home of the President-elect (as well as almost all the members of his kitchen cabinet and many members of his administration) – I thought I would take the unusual step of interviewing myself today to share with BuzzFlash readers some of the points about the "Blago" scandal I have made on the radio in recent days. It seems like the appropriate forum to offer some clarifications and insights.
You can, of course, also browse The BuzzFlash Blog at http://www.buzzflash.org for relevant Blagojevich entries of the past week.
Editor and Publisher
BuzzFlash.com & the BuzzFlash Internet News Network (including BuzzFlash.net)
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BuzzFlash: If there is one thing that the mainstream corporate press has gotten wrong about the Blagojevich scandal, what is it?
Mark Karlin: In general, most of the national media outlets don’t realize that the breakfast arrest and cuffing of Blagojevich at his Ravenswood Manor home on Chicago’s North Side was just the tip of the iceberg. He and his chief of staff were apprehended based on a hurry-up "charge list" listing only two federal counts, but filled with salacious expletive-deleted excerpts and the bragged-about sale of Obama’s former senate seat.
However, most of the national press doesn’t realize that this was just U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's hurried effort to prevent what he thought was about to occur: the appointment of a tainted, paid-for U.S. Senate seat. Fitzgerald would never allow such a crime and violation of the public trust to be committed if he had foreknowledge of it, which he did because of the tape and other alleged sources. Also, Blagojevich had promised to name the new senator by Christmas, so time was running short to intervene.
The key point, often overlooked in the fascination with Blagojevich’s brazen crookedness, is that the arrest was an unplanned deviation from a three-year investigation in which "Blago" was the unnamed target. Last week’s charges against Blagojevich were so rushed that they never even went through a grand jury. They were not technically indictments.
Given the number of people around Blagojevich who have been indicted and convicted in the past three years, and the cooperation of high-level "Blago" associates in the federal probe (including the now convicted but not sentenced Tony Rezko), expect that the Governor will be indicted by a grand jury for double digit counts of illegal violation of the public trust. It will probably occur sometime in late winter or in the spring of 2009.
BuzzFlash: The late night comics and veteran mainstream pundits kept asking, "How could this guy be so dumb?"
Mark Karlin: Let’s put it this way. You should never give a guy like George W. Bush the keys to the car; and you should never give a guy like Rod Blagojevich the combination to the bank vault. Both Bush and Blagojevich found their true deviant talents, and they were devastating for the country and the State of Illinois, respectively.
Blagojevich (who was elected to the Illinois House in 1992, the Congress in 1996, and the Governor’s office in 2002) found out, when he started fundraising for the 2002 Democratic primary that he was good at "pay to play"; he realized that he excelled at shaking people down for campaign cash (and for enriching the family, allegedly through his wife). Illinois is one of the few states that has no campaign fund-raising limits for individuals and corporations, so Rod had a clear running field.
He built up such a massive multi-million dollar campaign fund that he scared off viable contenders in the 2006 primary, even though he was by then under a heavy cloud of suspicion, and he beat a weak Republican opponent in the general election.
Ironically, he vetoed an ethics reform bill in the summer of 2008, which was quickly overridden in the Illinois House. But the Illinois Senate President (the retiring Emil Jones, Blagojevich’s one significant political ally) balked at letting the Senate override the veto. It took a phone call from none other than Barack Obama to Emil Jones to tell him to call up and re-pass the ethics reform bill. Sure enough the Senate then unanimously overrode Blagojevich’s veto.
The bill limits any individual or corporation who gives more than $25,000 to a state official from receiving a state contract. It goes into effect January 1st of 2009. Some have conjectured that this is why Blagojevich was so frantically trying to shake down the Senate seat and get paid corporate board positions for his wife, among other extortion plots on the tapes. But remember that his ultimate indictments will cover six years of his governorship. One allegation of trying to get pay to play cash from a near South Side hospital goes back to 2003.
BuzzFlash: Is there any humor in all of this?
Mark Karlin: Sure, if you like bleak, dark humor.
Of course, Blagojevich’s "Big Boy" hair fetish is the subject of many jokes, including ones about a hair brush that Blago has staffers carry around everywhere for him (and The New York Times actually got this right), and for which he has a couple of nicknames - the "football" and the "bomb".
On the darker side, Blago and his infamous father-in-law, Alderman Richard Mell, carried on a highly public feud a few years back, which baffled just about everyone. For some reason, Blagojevich precipitously closed a waste dump that Mell had a financial interest in and which a Mell relative ran. Mell went ballistic and accused his son-in-law, the Governor, of being a back-stabber. More tellingly, Mell told the media that Rod sold seats on Illinois State boards. Later Mell "retracted" the accusation. Now remember that one of his daughters, Patti, is married to Blago, and is herself a person of interest in the investigation. She was heard on the Fed tapes egging Blago on with expletive-deleted epithets.
When the press asked Blagojevich why he was publicly feuding with his father-in-law and so abruptly closed the waste dump, he cited what might give the best psychological insight into his mindset: "This is the kind of thing that I think frankly separates the men from the boys in leadership. Do you have the testicular virility to make a decision like that knowing what's coming your way? I say I do."
When Blagojevich was arrested, Mell (who was one of two white aldermen who obstructed the administration of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington at every turn) expressed concern for his daughter (whom he had not talked to in a year, since his wife/her mother died) and granddaughters, but not Rod.
It should be noted that Mell is responsible for launching Blagojevich’s political career and basically got him set up for the Illinois House Seat as well as his Congressional seat.
In an unrelated but interesting note, Mell has a second daughter, Deb (Blagojevich’s sister-in-law), who came out as a lesbian a few years ago. The family, to their credit, embraced her, and in January she will be sworn in as an Illinois State Representative, holding the seat (more or less) once held by Blago. She may be in the position of having to vote on her brother-in-law’s impeachment.
I told you that it could make a soap opera.
BuzzFlash: Okay, what is the Obama connection to the senate seat replacement?
Mark Karlin: Not much. Allegedly, Rahm Emanuel conveyed to Blagojevich a list of senate replacements preferred by Obama, but Blagojevich is heard on tape cursing that the Obama camp wouldn’t give him anything but thanks. He calls Obama the F-word because his people won’t pay to play.
Emanuel has not talked to the press about his conversations with the Governor or his staff since Blagojevich’s arrest. It is likely that there is nothing illegal on the Fed tapes regarding Emanuel, but what might strike interest is not what Emanuel had to say about the Senate seat, but what he had to say about who might get Blago’s backing for the special election for Emanuel’s 5th Congressional seat.
Subject to redistricting, the 5th is basically the seat once held by Blagojevich (and Dan Rostenkowski, for that matter). It’s possible that Emanuel was a bit "frank" in his discussions and the tapes might prove a trifle embarrassing to him, although not likely illegal.
But then again, this is pure conjecture.
But Obama is in the clear. He never had any interest in accumulating money, horse trading, and certainly not "pay to play." Obama is a public policy wonk from Hyde Park, not a ward heeler out of "Goodfellas."
BuzzFlash: Illinois politics is sure getting a lot of bad press out of this.
Mark Karlin: Like every state, Illinois has its sinners, such as Blagojevich and George Ryan (although remember that Ryan was the first governor to put in place a moratorium on executions) – and its saints.
Remember that this is the home state of Adlai Stevenson, Paul Douglas, Paul Simon, Dick Durbin, and Barack Obama. And let’s not forget that tall gangly guy, Abraham Lincoln. When Barack Obama first declared that he was running for President, he did so in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, just a few yards from Lincoln’s law office.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW