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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 06:24 am

The golden boy of Illinois

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Rod Blagojevich with his wife, Patti, in March, just before he reported to federal prison in Colorado to begin serving a 14-year sentence
PHOTO BY NUCCIO DINUZZO/MCT

Reading Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison, is an excruciatingly painful experience. But the pain does not come from the work of Jeff Coen and John Chase, reporters for the Chicago Tribune who, like all Illinoisans, lived the Blagojevich years firsthand. In covering the atrocities of the Blagojevich incumbency, the authors have done a thorough and remarkable job. Indeed it may be too thorough. Reading Golden is reliving the pain of six years of bumbling ineptitude in government, coupled with incredible greed and dishonesty. To be reminded of the Blagojevich years is to tear at a scab that would be better left to heal; but it is not to be.

Illinoisans did not wake up on Jan. 13, 2003, to discover that Rod Blagojevich suddenly was the governor of Illinois. The years have dimmed the memory of the optimism and joy many felt with the swearing-in of the new governor. Coen and Chase devote the first 129 pages of Golden to reminding us how Blagojevich climbed the Illinois political ladder and reached the top. Blagojevich did have political skills; he was good with crowds and brought enthusiasm to the campaign trail. He was blessed with the political connections that come from marriage to the daughter of a powerful politician. Finally, his political timing was impeccable. In the election of 2002, Illinois Republicans were running from scandal-plagued George Ryan, who had decided against running for reelection. The Republican candidate in 2002 was Jim Ryan, Illinois attorney general who, though unrelated to George, was cursed with the same last name. Jim Ryan was unwilling to campaign in the Blagojevich fashion, making his uphill election battle even more difficult. He was soundly defeated in the November election.

The agony of reading Golden comes from the details that Coen and Chase provide about Blagojevich’s behavior in office. Presidents and governors often take office with optimistic agendas. The enthusiasm of taking office can result in important legislation and accomplishments in the early days of an administration. Blagojevich was not interested in those types of accomplishments. From day one he was interested in obtaining political contributions from any available source. For Blagojevich, the job of governor held no interest. Governing tasks were left to underlings. Had Blagojevich been as good a governor as a fundraiser, our state might have had a chance. But he was not and we suffered the consequences.

Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself out of the Governor’s Office and into Prison, by Jeff Coen and John Chase. Chicago Review Press.
Coen and Chase provide us with the full extent of the Blagojevich legacy – everything in Illinois was for sale in exchange for political contributions to the governor. Of course it wasn’t just Democrats who purchased access; many supporters of George Ryan, Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson were more than willing to pay for continued access to government. By helping Blagojevich raise millions, they only made it more difficult to defeat him, but they benefited regardless. And several joined, or will shortly join, the governor in federal prison.

The title of the book comes from Blagojevich’s description of the crowning “achievement” of his tenure in office, the attempt to sell a United States Senate seat. Never did the governor work harder. By the time the vacancy occurred, federal officials were recording almost every Blagojevich conversation. As you read of the plots and ruminations, you do not know whether to laugh or cry. Blagojevich decides that he might bargain the appointment for an ambassador position in India and sends wife Patti to her computer to locate the running trails near the American embassy. Rod was always thinking.

Illinois political junkies will not find much new in Golden, but they will see the scandal recounted in an organized and factually detailed fashion. For those who only paid scant attention to this or any of Illinois’ numerous political scandals, Golden is a sad reminder of politics at its worst. Jeff Coen and John Chase remind us that we need to be more vigilant and demanding of our public officials if we hope to improve the plight of our state. If not, we get the politicians we deserve.  

Stuart Shiffman reviews books for bookreporter.com and Judicature as well as Illinois Times.

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