Tapes played in the courtroom last week showed Blago taking a brief break from trying to squeeze Barack Obama for a high-paying job—and musing on one of his favorite subjects, Richard Nixon.
When Rod was at the top of his game in 2003, just after he was elected governor—and when fantasies of the Oval Office danced in his head—he told me that his favorite presidents were Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But the memories Blago shared with me during our interviews showed something different: from boyhood on, he was obsessed with Richard Nixon.
One of the memorable moments of his life, he said, occurred in the summer of 1980.
Then 23 and about to start law school, Blago and his best boyhood friend took their first trip to New York City. They staked out Nixon’s Upper East Side townhouse so Blago could get the ex-president’s autograph. Nixon emerged in suit and tie at 7 a.m.; Blago was wearing running clothes.
He asked Nixon to sign the autograph to his mother, who, Blagojevich explained, loved Nixon because "he had suffered so much," had "two lovely daughters," and "was loyal to Pat." Blago’s father, Rade, born in 1911 to a family of pig farmers in a small village outside of Belgrade, admired Nixon, too, particularly for his vociferous denunciation of Communism. (After the Nazi’s invaded in 1941, Rade was confined to a prison camp in Germany for four years.)
Blago identified with Nixon’s outsider aura, his wrong-side-of-the-tracks background, and he rooted for the beleaguered, ridiculed, shunned President during the Watergate hearings.
“Many of those qualities that got [Nixon] where he was,” Blago explained to me, “negative qualities, are what ultimately brought him down….I think if Nixon were a little more relaxed and had a little more love in his heart, a little less negative resentments….” Blago let the thought drift off, then added that Nixon held too many grudges. The difference between Nixon and Clinton, Rod said, was that Clinton forgave his enemies, even some Republicans who voted to impeach him.
In late 2008, as the newspapers reported that his calls were being taped, Blago, too, indulged in grudges. Jesse Jackson Jr. desperately wanted Barack Obama’s Senate seat, but Blago couldn’t forget that Jackson had backed off his promise to endorse Blago in the 2002 gubernatorial primary. Once Blago realized he couldn’t get a cabinet position in exchange for giving the seat to Obama’s choice (Valerie Jarrett), he gave it to Roland Burris, the man whom Jackson had endorsed in that primary. On tape, chatting with his chief of staff, Blago called Jackson “repugnant” and “a bad guy.”
Like his hero, Blago refused to resign—calling his opponents “a political lynch mob” until backed into a corner. In Nixon’s farewell to his staff as he exited the White House and boarded the helicopter en route to exile in California, he paid tribute to Teddy Roosevelt, calling him a man “always in the arena.” In a press conference Blago held 10 days after his arrest, vowing not to resign, he too evoked TR—quoting, just as Nixon had, from TR’s “man in the arena” speech. Their enemies, both men seemed to say, were spectators shouting criticism at the real hero, the man who dares to step into the ring, “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming….”
In 2003, Blago described Nixon to me as a “visionary in foreign affairs,” but “a Greek tragedy in many ways.” No doubt Blago, in 2010, would like to cast his political downfall in a similar way. What he fails to understand is that his life —as it plays out in those tapes and that testimony, in his manic entrances and exits from the courthouse—is unfolding not as Greek tragedy but as farce.
Illustration submitted by Jay Weinberg to the Blagojevich Portrait Contest