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.

(page 7 of 12)


The University of Tampa was an odd college choice for a kid “from the neighborhood,” as Blagojevich puts it, but his brother had gone there two years before to play baseball. With a lackluster grade point average and an 18 or 19 on his ACT, Blagojevich admits, “schools like Northwestern, I couldn’t get into.” After two years, Rod got into Northwestern as a transfer student and majored in history. He lived at home and drove back and forth to Evanston in a 1971 Dodge Dart, which he also used to deliver pizzas.

He took a year off after graduation-1979 to 1980-to make money for law school, getting a job through a friend at the office of the Cook County recorder of deeds, and a second job, through his father, as a Serbo-Croatian interpreter for the Cook County courts. His experience does not exactly inspire confidence in the administration of justice. Once, Blagojevich was asked to interpret for a Bulgarian man who had been charged with criminal sexual assault. “That was a travesty of justice,” Blagojevich recalls. “I didn’t understand half of what he was saying.” The authorities claimed the man had carried a gun. Blagojevich, thinking he was using the Bulgarian word for “gun,” instead used the word for “cannon,” so the Bulgarian defendant vigorously denied it. The man’s lawyer did not object.

On another occasion, Blagojevich was called to interpret for a Croatian being represented by the law firm of then alderman Edward Vrdolyak. Impressed by the young man, Vrdolyak’s investigator set up a meeting with the alderman for Blagojevich, who happened to mention the plan to one of his former Northwestern professors. “Do you really want to do that?” the professor asked. “You’re about to go to law school. So do you really want to get involved in that dirty Chicago political world?” Blagojevich skipped the meeting.

In a sense, Northwestern had done its work, exposing the young man from “the mean streets,” as he called them, to a world of privilege and elitism. In his spare time Blagojevich read-he remembers particularly Edith Hamilton’s books about ancient Greece and Rome-and he took acting lessons, not to overcome any lingering shyness, he insists, but for reasons of “character building.”

He had not done well on the LSATs and was rejected by the University of Chicago and Northwestern, but rather than go to a local second-tier law school, he enrolled at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Alonzo Monk, a classmate at Pepperdine and currently Blagojevich’s chief of staff, says the choice was influenced in part by Blagojevich’s fascination with Richard Nixon, whose roots were in the area. (The summer before, on their first trip to New York City, Blagojevich and Mike Ascaridis awoke early to get an autograph from Nixon as he left his Upper East Side townhouse for his morning walk. To this day, Blagojevich entertains anyone, anytime by re-enacting the encounter, doing a quite passable imitation of the former President.)

Charles Nelson, the interim dean at Pepperdine’s School of Law and at the time one of Blagojevich’s professors, calls him a “good student without being outstanding.” Still, Nelson-who got to know Blagojevich well during a semester abroad in London-was struck by Blagojevich’s intellectual curiosity and his appetite for books whose content would never appear on any of his exams.

His love of books did not extend to other cultural endeavors. He enjoys recounting that President Nixon asked the young men what they had seen in New York and seemed pleased that they had gone to a Yankees game. When a woman who lived nearby suggested that they go to the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Rod replied, “We’re going Friday to see the Mets play the Reds.” While in London, he saw one play but remembers nothing more about it. He does recall every detail of going to Piccadilly Circus to see a 3 a.m. Tommy Hearnes/Sugar Ray Leonard fight, live from Las Vegas.

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