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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

On Rod Blagojevich’s Sentencing Day, Some Comparisons to Jim Thompson

Rod Blagojevich will find out his fate this morning at his sentencing hearing for his conviction earlier this year on corruption charges. Here, Carol Felsenthal looks at some similiarities between Blago and another former Illinois gov.

Former Illinois governors Rod Blagojevich and Jim Thompson


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Rod Blagojevich will find out his fate this morning at his sentencing hearing for his conviction earlier this year on corruption charges. On Sunday afternoon, I heard Fox’s Mike Flannery on WLS-AM ruminating on the former governor’s downfall. There’s something wrong with Blago’s “wiring,” he said, implying that Blago might be—and this is my word—nuts.

Flannery may be onto something because there’s no other way to explain Blago. Yes, he was sickened with envy that in 2008, Barack Obama—the same guy who arrived as a freshman state senator the year Blago left Springfield for D.C. as a U.S. congressman—was on his way to the White House. That envy grew poisonous as Blago watched Barack achieve superstar and mutlimillionaire status while Blago worried about how he’d afford his preposterously expensive wardrobe—much less college educations for his daughters. 

A sane man might have swallowed his rage and seen a solution: keep your head down, show up at the Chicago office from time to time—people already knew that he avoided Springfield like a cheap suit—resist the urge to make money by selling Obama’s senate seat, and not push for payback in the form of a cushy job as ambassador or cabinet officer or foundation head, especially when the lowliest staffer could have told him that his phones might be tapped. Just run out the second term as governor. Don’t even hint at running for a third, not with all the investigations percolating. Then do what retired governors, congressmen, senators have always done: Take a job in the government relations (i.e. lobbying) department of a law firm—no complex legal skills required, just an up-to-date Rolodex.

He also might have looked to his immediate predecessor, George Ryan, as a flashing red light. There was Ryan struggling in prison, unable to visit his alarmingly ill wife. A sane Blago, no matter how naturally given to cheating and laziness, would have been struck cold with fear and vowed, “No way will that ever happen to me.” 

A self-proclaimed student of history, Blagojevich also could also have found another model for a future that would not include a likely decade or more behind bars—an Illinois governor, 20 years Blago’s senior, who served his time in the job—four terms (1977-1991)—always with his eye, like Blago’s, on moving up to the White House, or at the least to a prestigious cabinet position. (Blago and I discussed Thompson in 2003 when I interviewed him in his office in the State of Illinois Building—the office first occupied by Thompson. I’ve written profiles of both men—the Thompson profile in the October 1988 issue of Chicago, and Blago here.)

Yes, there are differences between them: Thompson is a graduate of Northwestern Law, Blago of Pepperdine; in 1986, while Blago, an assistant state’s attorney, was trying DUI cases at the old traffic court on LaSalle St., Thompson was already governor. (Before that, Thompson was a crusading U.S. Attorney, and, before that, a law professor at Northwestern.)

But there are some key similarities, too. Like Blagojevich, Thompson was known for savoring the ceremonial perks of the job and dreaming of reaching the White House, as early as 1980—a wish he admitted to having since he was 11. Blago intended to reach the top by 2008, as president or, if need be, as VP. At age 13, Blago told his best friend of his goal; he stunned his traffic court supervisor by confessing the same ambition to him. Thompson worshiped Teddy Roosevelt and saw himself as a successor to Abe Lincoln.  Blago’s heroes also were T.R. and Lincoln. By 1988, Thompson was actively angling to be George H.W. Bush’s VP pick but was passed over for Dan Quayle. After press speculation about top spots for Thompson in Washington—FBI head, Attorney General, Supreme Court justice—proved to be false, Thompson’s D.C. dreams died. And, in 1991, on leaving the governor’s office, he headed to Winston & Strawn. His title—no surprise—was head of the firm’s “Government Relations Practice.” Since then, news stories have had him earning seven figures, enjoying the services of a driver, and being showered with appointments to commissions and boards. 

Thompson managed to remain scandal-free during his long tenure as the state’s top executive, but there was much criticism of his hands-off style of governing. He, too, didn’t much like staying overnight in Springfield. He had a penchant for traveling the U.S. and abroad, sometimes in lavish style, and he had a love for the accoutrements of wealth on a public servant’s salary, for fine furniture and antiques, including a small scandal involving a local antique dealer who gave him gifts of Lincoln lithographs and Teddy Roosevelt medallions. The dealer also gave a shelf in his store to the governor, on which he allegedly placed items he wanted; that way potential gift-givers would know they were selecting a piece he would like.

And, like Blago, Thompson publicly described his worry that he would ever be able to send his only child, a daughter, to college on a governor’s salary. Once Samantha Thompson reached college age, her father was a highly compensated attorney. Obviously devoted to his daughter, “Big Jim” could enjoy her every accomplishment, including high school and college graduations. Thompson, now 74, is a popular figure around town, and will live out his life with plenty of money and respect. 

Blago, on the other hand, faces many years in a jail cell—his treasured hair gone gray (his barber told me last May that Blago likely dyes it) and tended to by a prison barber, his girls and wife moving along in their lives without him. If the girls get financial support, it will be because their mother, Patti, found a job, or because Patti’s father, Ald. Richard Mell, decided to help. Mell, whose falling-out with Rod was a factor leading the feds to take a close look at him, was, before the days of their estrangement, the gov’s biggest booster. Ironically, Mell also predicted often that Rod would one day live, not in the big house, but in the White House.


Photography: Chicago Tribune

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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