By Rod Blagojevich
(Phoenix Books, 264 pages, $24.95)
“I’m Icarus, who flew too close to the Sun. And I crashed to the ground.”
For a man who many believe is guilty of federal crimes, disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been anything but quiet. He defiantly asserts his innocence in his book that hit stores this week. Blagojevich uses numerous and probably excessive historical and pop culture references — comparing his plight to Teddy Roosevelt, Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull, George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life, in addition to invoking Greek mythology. He sees his political rise and fall as one large Shakespearean tragedy — exhibiting elements from Henry IV, Henry V, Othello, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and “throw in a little Richard the Third.”
Alas, he forgot to invoke Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As his trial approaches, it seems the man doth protest too much.
Rather than flying too close to the Sun, Blagojevich admits he flew too close to real estate peddler Tony Rezko, his corrupt father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell, and an assortment of other shady Chicago pols. But, as he reminds readers dozens of times, “I did nothing wrong.”
It takes nearly two-thirds of the book before Blagojevich actually addresses the charges he is facing: that he tried to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. Although the kicker to the book claims, “Finally, the truth behind the political scandal that continues to rock the nation,” the former governor spends most of book meandering from topic to topic — devoting an entire chapter to his case for universal health care, another to the trip he and Jesse Jackson took to Serbia to negotiate the release of captured U.S. soldiers, and several chapters to the blue collar, no nonsense upbringing he received from his immigrant father.
When he finally does address the scandal, he asserts that it was his corrupt father-in-law’s business practices that attracted the attention of the FBI. The wiretapped conversations, he says, were taken out of context. Rather than “sell” the Senate seat, he only wanted to barter it to strike a political deal whereby he believed he could pass a public works project with House Speaker Mike Madigan if he appointed his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, to fill Obama’s Senate seat. Only in that context, he says, can his wiretapped remarks that his seat “is a f—ing valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing” be understood.
Even if one takes his explanation at face value, it wouldn’t absolve him of his using the Senate seat as a negotiating chip. Rather than find the best candidate to represent Illinois, the former governor was more interested in making either a financial score or a political score. He claims he made the preliminary decision to appoint Madigan after asking, “How much do I love the people of Illinois?” Apparently, he didn’t love them enough to appoint someone not tied to his cynical agenda.
Given his unpopularity after his arrest, he claims it became too difficult to act on the deal he’d bartered. That’s when he decided, “I wanted to appoint an African-American.” He lists several of the African Americans he considered, before finally settling on Roland Burris. “I was about to make history,” he proudly declares, finding his selection of Burris as “altogether fitting and proper” as anything attempted by Abraham Lincoln.
Throughout his book, Blagojevich makes sure to name-drop — and thus establish his ties to — all the prominent Illinois Democrats who have ascended to national power. He tells the story of how he met Barack Obama — their mutual friend Tony Rezko introduced them in 1995. Senior adviser to the president David Axelrod was his media consultant. He alleges that in one of the conversations recorded by the FBI incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called him to try to get him to appoint a placeholder for Emanuel’s congressional seat. Once eventually back in Congress, Blagojevich writes, Emanuel would position himself to become Speaker of the House.
Blagojevich contends that the embarrassing contents of such wiretapped conversations with Emanuel, and many in the Illinois legislature, are what largely kept them from being released or from being heard at his impeachment hearings. What’s more, he argues, he was impeached by the legislature because it felt it could co-opt now Governor Pat Quinn into raising taxes — something Blagojevich had opposed.
In all, the book contains several interesting anecdotes and stories of Chicago politics that one might find readable. Still, at only 264 pages, without footnotes, endnotes, an index, and with several typos and curse words, it seems a bit overpriced, even if he’s not giving copies away to readers for f—ing nothing.