Governor Sunshine

From our November 2003 issue: Things could not be better for Rod Blagojevich. He loves politics, and he has won every election he has entered (with help from his father-in-law, a clout-heavy alderman). The govenorship is his focus now, he insists, but this look at his personal history suggests he hopes for much, much more.

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Governor Rod Blagojevich rarely loses his temper, but he is hopping mad this afternoon in his sprawling suite of offices atop the James R. Thompson Center in the Loop. A reporter has just told him that his childhood buddy Danny Angarola described the adolescent Blagojevich on the basketball court as “Mr. Outside,” something of a “pretty boy,” who avoided catching elbows under the boards.

“That’s a bunch of baloney,” the state’s chief executive snarls. “I used to penetrate. Are you kidding me? Who said that? I used to drive to the basket.” He cannot let it go. Secretary of state Jesse White can call the governor’s cuts of budget “degrading” and “ugly” and “a violation of all laws of human decency,” and Blagojevich seems unfazed. The people are happy with the job he is doing, so who cares? But toss him an innocent observation on a game he gave up nearly 30 years ago-that’s another story. “Didn’t like to take the ball and go inside and get the rebound!” He shakes his head in disgust. “That really irritates me.”

Blagojevich’s irrepressibly sunny disposition soon returns, however. He is looking good on this casual Friday in a navy blue polo shirt and tan gabardine slacks, their creases razor sharp. His hair, as always, looks perfect-or perfectly ridiculous to those who think he should lose the choirboy bangs. His runner’s body is toned, his waist trim, his stomach taut. He is as pleased as can be with the private shower in his office. He shows off photographs of himself with the actor Sylvester Stallone taken on a recent trip to Los Angeles; he was there promoting an incentive package to bring moviemakers to Illinois, but he also managed to raise money for future campaigns. He loves to tell stories, especially when he is the star, and with a reporter in the office he has a willing audience.

Life could not be better. He loves politics, and he has won every election he has entered-first for the state legislature in 1992, where he stayed until 1997; then when he moved up to the U.S. Congress. Last year, he confounded the pundits by becoming the first Democrat since 1972 to win the governorship. He does seem a natural, with his high-energy style and his gift for connecting with voters, remembering not only their names but also the details of their lives. He denies it, but friends say he intends to run for President in 2008, and they point to his Hollywood jaunt as a way to build his nest egg. Once, riding in a limousine with Bill Clinton, Blagojevich had asked, “What made you think you could win in ‘92 against Bush and all those big names?” The President said he knew that if he “got the politics right,” his opponents would fall by the wayside. Today, Blagojevich acknowledges that Clinton was his model in the gubernatorial race.

The idea that Rod Blagojevich could seriously imagine himself running for President makes plenty of people in Illinois roll their eyes. Even U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, his Democratic colleague in Springfield and Washington, laments that she cannot persuade her constituents in the tonier precincts of Evanston to take the governor seriously. His chief burden, of course, is Chicago alderman Richard Mell, the clever, scheming, clout-heavy ward boss who is happy to take credit-mostly deserved-for Blagojevich’s political success. In 1990, two years before Mell drafted him to run for a state House seat, Blagojevich married the alderman’s daughter Patti. Now he cannot escape the charge that Mell is secretly calling the shots-a charge that Blagojevich’s colleagues stiffly deny, despite Mell’s biweekly meetings with the governor’s chief of staff-and he cannot quite shed the moniker Governor Son-in-Law.

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