I understand why Rod Blagojevich can’t quit the spotlight. As he says in Being Blago, Hulu’s new four-part miniseries on his life as a returning citizen, “I need a second act.” Blagojevich, a history buff, recites famous presidential quotes (“Ask not what your country can do for you,” etc.). Then he recites the two words for which he is best known: “f—in’ golden.” As he said the day after the 2008 presidential election about his power to appoint a successor to Sen. Barack Obama, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s f—in’ golden, and I’m just not giving it up for f—in’ nothing.”
Blagojevich, who spent nearly eight years in prison for allegedly trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat, spends most of his camera time in Being Blago attempting to vindicate his actions as “political horse trading.” In one scene, he points to the exact spot on the floor of his Ravenswood Manor home where he uttered the famous words. He had just come home from an eight-mile run, and was stretching while he talked to a labor leader about a list of four potential Senate candidates he says the Obama camp had relayed to him: Tammy Duckworth, Dan Hynes, Jesse Jackson Jr., and Jan Schakowsky.
“It was in the context of responding to President Obama’s overture to make a political deal,” he insists. “It was twisted and taken out of context by this corrupt prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, like he read Mein Kampf. He took it right out of Hitler’s playbook: tell the Big Lie.”
Rod can’t quit trying to win back the public’s love. That’s no surprise. He’s a disgraced politician. The more interesting question is, why can’t we quit Rod?
Hulu would not have spent days filming Blago at his house and on a park bench in front of the Lincoln Park Conservatory if they didn’t think the public would watch. Richard Roeper gave Being Blago a glowing review in the Sun-Times, calling it “addictively digestible, darkly funny, well-photographed and expertly edited.” As we learn during the series, Blagojevich has filmed 2,500 Cameos over the past year and a half, at up to $100 a pop. That’s a bigger fee than a lot of washed-up TV stars and athletes (although not, to Rod’s chagrin, as much as Mike Tyson or Brett Favre), and has provided Blagojevich a greater income than he earned as governor of Illinois. Blago tells one birthday boy he’s “f—in’ golden,” then launches into proclamation of his innocence.
We have more than one disgraced governor in Illinois. But no one’s paying George Ryan for a Cameo greeting. Ryan wrote a book about his decision to end the death penalty in Illinois — a much more consequential decision than Blagojevich’s free bus rides for seniors. Yet Until I Could Be Sure only currently sits at No. 1,073,297 on Amazon.
Ryan is an old grump. Blagojevich is a real-life cartoon character, popular culture’s best example of a bombastic, narcissistic, devious politician since the fictional Senator Claghorn. He’s handsome, with a mane of hair that turned silver in prison. He’s charming. He charmed his wife Patti into marrying him, he charmed her ward-boss father Dick Mell into running him for the legislature, Congress, and the governorship. He charmed the voters of Illinois. He never lost an election. He charmed everyone but the General Assembly that impeached him and the jury that convicted him at his federal trial. Blago’s utter lack of shame and self-awareness make for compelling television. On Being Blago, he does his “two-bit Elvis impersonation” at a fundraiser for former Chicago Bear Steve McMichael. On Celebrity Apprentice, he was the show’s comic relief, napping on the job, appearing clueless at how to operate a laptop computer. Blagojevich’s fellow C-listers expected a corrupt, hardened politician but developed a fondness for their bumbling castmate.
“I think a lot of people are liking Rod,” concluded Donald Trump, who seemed reluctant to fire that season’s resident buffoon. (When Trump was president, he repaid Blago for his entertainment value by commuting his sentence, after a long campaign by Patti.)
There’s a saying that a celebrity is someone whose name is worth more than his services. (Cameo is based on this principle.) Blago is turning out to be a more successful celebrity than he was a politician. Trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat provided him the notoriety to pursue his true calling. There’s something distinctly Chicago about his celebrity, too: unlike New York and Los Angeles, we don’t have entertainment figures — we have politicians.
Still, once a politician, always a politician. Blagojevich has filed a lawsuit to overturn a law preventing him from holding public office in Illinois. Even though his wife is adamantly opposed to her husband re-entering politics (“it won’t be in this marriage”), he imagines himself beating Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“I think I match up well with this mayor,” he says. “I think it’s a good race for me.”
“I don’t think that he’ll ever be able to clear his name,” Patti says. “That vindication that he’s seeking, I don’t see that ever happening.”
Blago will never stop trying, though. And we’ll never stop watching him.