Each of the 50 U.S. states has some iconic image, some claim to fame, to which it is tied. Peaches are linked with Georgia, Colorado is famous for mountains, and closer to home, Packer fans wear large wedges of cheese for headgear. Unfortunately for my boyhood state of Illinois, it is perhaps best known for corrupt politicians.
Illinois, of course, refers to itself as “The Land of Lincoln”. Apart from the annoyance this phrase must cause in Lincoln’s birth state of Kentucky, it also is the height of irony that Honest Abe is associated with a state which traffics in dirty politicians the way Hawaii traffics in pineapples. You cannot achieve the unbroken string of incarcerated governors and indicted mayors that are forever linked with Illinois without a statewide commitment to excellence in graft. Whenever another state tries to wrest control of the “most corrupt” title from Illinois – and here we need to tip our hats to New York and Louisiana, among others – Illinois produces another outrageous fact which demonstrates that when it comes to corruption, there can only be one undisputed leader.
Illinois’ most recent governor, until his impeachment, was of course Rod Blagojevich. Although he narrowly avoided a string of convictions this past week – upholding the honor of those past Illinois politicians who evaded prison time – he appears headed for retrial, meaning the residents of Illinois will get another year to see their former governor parade in front of America, making outrageous television appearances while sporting an even more outrageous hairstyle.
Of course, you will never find a television show featuring Blagojevich which could deliver the sheer entertainment value of sitting quietly at home and reading his quotes from the FBI wiretaps – or listening to them online, or even downloading one of them as your personal ringtone.
It would be too difficult to pick the best fact out of a slew of data, but one of my personal favorites is the comment from the Deputy Governor who said Blagojevich spent about 2-8 hours per week in his office, and frequently hid in the bathroom to avoid discussions about legislation. I originally misread this and thought the Deputy Governor was accusing Blagojevich of spending 8 hours in the bathroom itself –which would be only slightly more ridiculous than the actual truth.
But this detail – the lack of time the Governor spent in the office – points to a simple fact: while Blagojevich had the spirit and ambition necessary to be a first-rate corrupt politician, he lacked the work ethic. This flaw in his lack of character will forever separate him from some of the finest politicians of Illinois’ past. A former state legislator named Paul Powell, who never earned more than $30,000 per year, died in 1971 with an estate valued at $2 million and $800,000 in cash found in a variety of boxes in his closet. He pales in comparison, however, to former Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, who served in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and after his death left behind two safety deposit boxes containing $1.5 million in cash.
In addition to proving once and for all that you can’t take it with you, these two politicians also provide an instructive lesson on the value of hard work. Let’s face it – you have to bring a singular focus to your role as a crooked politician to amass that kind of wealth. You can’t do it by working only 8 hours per week.
But give Blagojevich his due – he has style. He positioned himself to make a run at the Governor’s mansion largely based upon the political connections of his father-in-law, who eventually became a hated rival. In the general election, he positioned himself as “ending business as usual” since the governor he would be replacing – George Ryan – was convicted for racketeering and fraud. Blagojevich continued Ryan’s legacy by following the well-worn path of Illinois governors from the governor’s mansion to his own indictment.
Early accounts of the split jury last week indicate that for many of the charges, 11 jurors were voting guilty, but one lone hold-out stuck with the governor, which likely will put that juror in a great position to win some lucrative municipal contract for garbage collection or construction.
If we have found the Blagojevich drama to be in any way entertaining, then we owe special thanks to the Illinois voters, who played a pivotal role by electing Blagojevich not once, but twice.
Illinois is like Russia, in that both continue to hold elections for no apparent reason other than to keep up appearances. As long as the elections continue in Illinois, those of us from other states can look forward to a bright future filled with stories of bribery and corruption. Fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Published August 2010. Gov. Blagojevich was unable to escape a second time, and is currently serving a 14 year sentence in a Federal Correctional Insitution in Colorado.