Hot Rod Lincoln
He knew that he was destined for greatness. The son of uneducated manual laborers, immigrants to Illinois, he was never much of a student, but he would become a successful lawyer. From a young age, though, his sights were set on political power. Through his political connections, he got himself elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and, later, to the U.S. Congress from Illinois. Gregarious when he wanted to be, he was known to all by his monosyllabic three-letter nickname, not his trisyllabic given name.
He was well liked by some, but despised by others. Very few people had a neutral opinion, and even some of those who liked him and supported him in his rise to power were disturbed by his odd, self-centered behavior. He seemed unable to show much human emotion for those around him.
Whatever else anyone might have thought of him, he was a masterful politician, attacking corruption while engaging in inside deals that helped him both politically and personally. Unhappy with the location of the Illinois capitol, he essentially moved it to where he was living. But his ambitions extended beyond Illinois, and he needed money and backing to fulfill his dream of rising from his modest roots to the highest office in the land. Washington beckoned, and nothing would stand in his way.
Or, at least, that is what Gov. Milorad “Rod” Blagojevich thought right up until the phone rang at 6 a.m. on December 9, 2008, waking him at his home on Chicago’s North Side, which he had transformed into the de facto capitol of the state of Illinois. That same phone had been his undoing, and at a press conference later that morning, federal investigators outlined a 76-page indictment filed in U.S. district court, which detailed numerous calls made to and from that phone.
In selections from the transcripts of those calls, Governor Blagojevich repeatedly instructed aides to hold up $8 million in state funds for a children’s hospital until the head of the hospital coughed up a $50,000 donation to Friends of Blagojevich; discussed using $1.8 billion in state funds as a reward to a public contractor, a road builder, if only he would raise a half-million dollars for the governor’s war chest by the end of 2008, when new campaign-finance rules would go into effect; and tried to tie state assistance to the struggling Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs, to the firing of a writer for the Tribune who had penned editorials critical of Blagojevich’s conduct as governor.
The press conference was conducted by Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, who had successfully prosecuted Blagojevich’s predecessor, Republican Gov. George Ryan, on 18 counts of racketeering and fraud. Ryan had had the good sense to decline to run for reelection as the feds closed the net about him, and so he, like felonious former Democratic governors Dan Walker and Otto Kerner, avoided indictment while still in office.
Blagojevich not only ran for reelection in 2006 knowing that he was being investigated but as late as the day before his arrest declared to reporters that investigators were free to listen to his conversations because he had nothing to hide. Still, the transcripts showed that he was looking for a way out of the governor’s office so that he could rehabilitate his reputation—for a run for the presidency in 2016.
Milorad was probably too busy getting his trademark Serbian gangster hairdo coiffed for court that afternoon, but if he had a chance to listen to Fitzgerald’s press conference, the man who had consciously modeled himself on Honest Abe was likely cut to the bone when Fitzgerald declared, “The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” Of course, Rod shares more with Abe than the Brooklyn-born Fitzgerald would like to think. The railmen who bankrolled Lincoln could teach today’s blacktop bosses of Illinois a thing or two. And as President, Lincoln didn’t need to use financial persuasion to halt criticisms of his conduct; he could—and did—simply sign an executive order for the arrest and imprisonment of “the editors, proprietors, and publishers” of newspapers and prohibit “any further publication therefrom.”
No, if Lincoln was doing anything in his grave on December 9, 2008, he was probably thanking the God he didn’t believe in that Alexander Graham Bell hadn’t invented the telephone until 12 years after his last Good Friday.
Most of Governor Blagojevich’s transgressions were politics as usual here in the Land of Lincoln, but Fitzgerald was compelled to act when it became clear that Blago was attempting to sell Barack Obama’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. But what about our new President himself? Time will tell, but some of us in Illinois could not help but chuckle when the President-elect—another politician who modeled himself on Honest Abe—announced that the centerpiece of his New New Deal would be the biggest load of asphalt since the construction of the Interstate Highway System. One thing is certain: The appointment of outgoing Illinois congressman Ray LaHood (R-Blacktop) as transportation secretary had little to do with bipartisanship.
You can take the boy out of Illinois, but you can’t take Illinois out of the boy.
This article was first published in the February 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.