I’ve never been more disappointed in a politician than I am in Aaron Schock. That’s a strong statement coming from someone who lives in Illinois, where there are plenty of disappointing politicians. But I thought Schock was going to be the future of the Illinois Republican Party—maybe even the national Republican Party.
A month after he was elected to Congress, in 2008, I drove down to Peoria to spend a day with him for a profile in this magazine. At 27, he was about to become the youngest representative in Washington, and the first born in the 1980s. As we zipped around his hometown in his 2005 Chevy Envoy, from a TV interview to the airport to his bachelor house to a Middle Eastern restaurant, Schock sold himself as a millennial Republican too young to be burdened with the racial and cultural antagonisms that animated his elders.
As a state representative in Springfield, he had represented a low-income district, carrying 39 percent of the African-American vote. During a two-and-a-half-minute speech to the Republican National Convention that year, Schock talked about his party’s outreach to “inner-city residents not accustomed to seeing Republican candidates.” Who better to diversify the GOP than the congressman sitting in Abraham Lincoln’s old seat?
With a 40-year career in politics ahead of him, I was sure Schock could run for senator, or governor. A few days after our interview, the feds arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich for trying to peddle Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest campaign contributor. I emailed Schock and told him Blago’s arrest made me think of something he’d said about how political opportunities arise in the Land of Lincoln. He wrote back: “Ha! Feel free to use it! The exact quote is in reference to people always asking about my political future: ‘you never know who will retire, die, or in Illinois, get indicted.’”
The irony! Now, eight years later, after resigning from the House in 2015 over accusations of using public funds to finance a lifestyle far beyond the means of a Midwestern Congressman, Schock has been indicted himself, for allegedly converting campaign and Congressional funds to personal use. The Great Millennial Hope has turned out to be just another hinky politician, a story so familiar it was the subject of a recent book by Thomas J. Gradel and Dick Simpson, Corrupt Illinois.
Schock was undone by the same character flaw that brought down Blagojevich: narcissism. He left us clues on a table full of waiting-room magazines, posing in slim-cut suits for GQ and showing off his CrossFit abs on the cover of Men’s Health. His staff included a personal photographer to provide images for his Instagram account. If he didn’t look like just another “old crusty white guy,” he rationalized, young people might put down the remote and listen to him instead of flipping past CNN.
Thursday’s federal indictment alleges that Schock’s need to play the hip young Congressman went beyond his looks to his lifestyle. Schock traded in his Envoy for a 2010 Chevy Tahoe, which he afforded by submitting fraudulent mileage reimbursement requests to the House of Representatives and his political action committees, equaling the monthly payments. By the time he left Congress, he had billed 150,000 miles he had never driven. He bought $29,000 in camera equipment for his photographer, billing it to the House as “multimedia services.” He wrote off a $3,293 flight to Chicago for a Bears game as a government expense, then paid for his hotel and restaurant tab out of a campaign fund. He spent $53,455 to redecorate his Peoria home and his D.C. office, but only paid $15,000 of that himself, charging the rest to the House and his political action committees. (The Congressional office turned out to be his downfall, after the Washington Post wrote in February 2015 that it was decorated like a set from the TV show Downton Abbey, beginning a string of stories about Schock’s lavish spending and tastes.)
Schock’s attorney, George J. Terwilliger III, called the charges “made-up allegations of criminal activity arising from unintentional administrative errors.” Hauled into the dock, Schock is resorting to the last refuge of any Republican scoundrel, arguing that whatever his financial misdeeds, they were not as serious a threat to public order as Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account.
“Unlike some politicians, I did not delete any emails, nor did my staff smash or destroy any electronic devices,” Schock said. “Quite the opposite, every record, every document, every picture on the wall was left behind. I took nothing with me. I knew I had nothing to hide, and I believed that a quick review would prove this fact.”
Even in disgrace, you have to admire Schock’s precocity. He’s only 35 years old, and he’s already ticked off every box on the Illinois politician’s resume: the state legislature, Congress, federal indictment. Prison may be next. It took Dan Rostenkowski 68 years to do all that. George Ryan wasn’t convicted until he was 72. Even the youthful Blagojevich was 55 when he went to prison. It shouldn’t be surprising. Schock was, after all, the greatest political talent of his generation.