If I ever land another interview with Rod Blagojevich—I suppose I could wait until next Sunday and call his weekly WLS-AM talk show—I’d ask him why he didn’t just serve his terms as governor in a reasonably honest manner and then do what legions of retired legislators do: grab a job at a law firm and rake in a seven-figure salary.
If he answered candidly, I suspect he’d admit he was so focused on the next corner to cut that he didn’t see he might indeed have had something, as he so memorably put it, “fucking golden” to sell: not Obama’s Senate seat, but himself.
Even the most prestigious law firms would have overlooked that Blago graduated from Pepperdine Law in Malibu, not Harvard or Northwestern or Chicago. These big firms pay what it takes to hire the political players with the contacts to make rain. It wouldn’t have mattered that Blago was not much of a student (when I interviewed him 2003 he boasted about getting a “C” in constitutional law and not knowing where the law library was.) Chatting up potential clients over long lunches does not require the most astute legal mind.
Elected officials of high enough rank who manage to retire without being indicted don’t even need to be lawyers. Law firms’ government relations departments—a euphemism for lobbying shops—are bipartisan landing strips for former senators and governors.
In the government’s just-released proffer, a kind of guide to the feds’ case against Blago (and his brother, Rob), our former governor speculates that if he names Obama friend and aide Valerie Jarrett to Obama’s Senate seat his payment might be the Health and Human Services cabinet position. Told that the President-elect wasn’t going to put him in his cabinet, Blago turned to the possibility of getting an ambassadorship.
Somehow, in all the time Blago spent reading presidential biographies—and he really is a reader; I know because we share an interest and discussed our favorites at length—he missed the payola system in place for prized diplomatic posts since the administration of Andrew Jackson, a tradition so antithetical to good government that Blago himself might have invented it.
He seemed unaware that the cash flows in the other direction. The political appointments to cushy embassies almost always go to wealthy bundlers who raise hundreds of thousands for their President. Chicago lawyer/banker Louis Susman raised more than $500,000 for Obama and he went to London; Obama’s pick to be the ambassador to France raised $800,000; ditto for Spain, and so on.
Oddest of all, Blago, whom the proffer depicts as desperate to make big bucks, seemed to miss the fact ambassadors are government employees; they make a government salary—the top of the range is $161,000—in the vicinity of what Blago made as governor.
Perhaps Blago can be excused for his cluelessness. So many of his predecessors ended up in prison cells, not corner offices. George Ryan, for example. Had he acquired an ATM card instead of relying on his cronies for cash, Ryan—a pharmacist by training—might be socking it away now as a law firm lobbyist, readying himself for a proper retirement with Lura Lynn.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune / Scott Strazzante