- - Tuesday, July 19, 2016



By Bernard H. Sieracki

Foreword by Jim Edgar

Southern Illinois University Press, $32.50, 218 pages

In his foreword, former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar writes: “Even in a state stained by corruption at every level of government,” where three governors have gone to jail, “none had been impeached until the General Assembly, like a team of surgeons removing a cancer, urgently but methodically excised Rod Blagojevich, the state’s fortieth governor.”

It is this methodical excision that Bernard H. Sieracki, a former Springfield lobbyist who now teaches university courses in public administration, describes in well-documented detail and strong, straightforward prose.

On Dec. 8, 2008, FBI agents, in a pre-dawn raid, dragged Gov. Blagojevich from his home in handcuffs, arrested on allegations of corruption and extortion, for which he would soon stand a widely covered trial.

That dramatic arrest sharply focused the attention of the Illinois legislature, where discussion of corruption is never welcome. It was decided that because Blagojevich couldn’t remain in office and wouldn’t resign before his trial, an impeachment process would be set in motion. The Illinois House would immediately hold an investigation, pass an impeachment resolution, and the Senate would hold a trial, deciding whether to remove the governor.

This eight-week period, between the arrest and the unanimous vote of the Senate on Jan. 29, 2009, to remove Blagojevich from office, forms the core of Mr. Sieracki’s narrative, an account rich in character studies of the major political players like Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, arguably the most powerful politician in Illinois.

And then there’s the central character, who after a drawn-out and very public trial, reported to a federal prison in Colorado on March 15, 2012, to begin serving a 14-year sentence for multiple counts of fraud, bribery and conspiracy.

What do we make of him? He seemed a happy soul, a blithe spirit sporting a thick mop of black hair of which he was very proud, blessed with an attractive wife and two very well-brought-up daughters. He thought of himself as an astute politician, having among other things married into one of Chicago’s first political families.

But he seemed to tire quickly of his governing job, and traveled less and less frequently to Springfield to go through the political motions. Instead, he increasingly remained in Chicago, spending time on the telephone (something no semi-intelligent politician does during these days of ubiquitous eavesdropping), hatching money-making schemes and plots that might install him in Washington in some vague but exalted capacity.

And then he hit on it — a once-in-a-lifetime “[expletive] golden” opportunity. He’d sell or trade President Obama’s vacated Senate seat, perhaps in exchange for a place in the Cabinet. Just how far or how deep this went, we may never know. His defense attorney was denied permission to call witnesses he asked for, among them Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett, and as in so many of his dealings, it’s difficult to separate fact from fantasy.

In fact, it’s that odd “otherness,” an apparent defining characteristic, that seemed to render him oblivious to who and what he was or what he thought he was doing in the real world, a quality Mr. Sieracki captures nicely in his account of Blagojevich’s final speech to the Illinois Senate — his last chance to save himself by refuting the charges against him.

Instead, he gave a highly emotional and hackneyed campaign speech of the kind that used to bring tears to the eyes of motherly constituents. And when it came to the matter of venality and corrupt money-raising practices, speaking in a confident we’re-all-boys-here tone, he told the senators: “You guys are all in politics. You know what we have to do to go out and run — run elections.” And as for his remarks caught on tape, “those are conversations relating to the things all of us in politics do in order to run campaigns and try to win elections.”

“The senators,” writes Mr. Sieracki, “were stunned by the remarks.” And they reacted by voting unanimously for the governor’s removal — quickly.

The end? Perhaps not quite.

On Aug. 9, he’s up for resentencing. And 14 years does seem a stiff price to pay for stupidity, harebrained schemes and odd personality disorders. According to all accounts, he’s been a model prisoner, teaching classes, tutoring and singing in a rock group, where he may well have found his role in life.

And who knows? His early release might give Mr. Sieracki material for another meticulously researched and absorbing book.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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