Rod Blagojevich, convicted former governor of Illinois, leaves us as Gov. Dead Meat and arrives in prison Thursday as Gov. New Fish, the second consecutive governor to go to the federal slammer in this thoroughly crooked state we call home.
"I believe I always, always thought about what was right for the people," Blagojevich said. "… When I became governor I fought a lot. And maybe I fought too much. And maybe one of the lessons to this whole story is that you've got to be a little bit more humble. You can never have enough humility. And maybe I could have had more of that."
If he were truly humble he'd have shut the heck up, or at least admitted his guilt, instead of playing the sad yet fiendish imp from some Fellini movie, thrilled to be at the center of his own carnival, with morons trying to drape an American flag on his shoulders, and Rod babbling about hubris and how the Greeks understood that suffering comes before wisdom.
The only time he almost touched the truth was in that bit about his hubris.
Of course, Blagojevich is absolutely guilty of corruption. He tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. He tried to shake down a children's hospital. He was revealed as a cheap hustler, and he deserves what's coming to him.
Yet corruption isn't enough to explain his fall. It's too easy. It won't help us understand this crooked state we live in. And it won't explain why he'll be a human trivia question in a few months, and why his former rival and fellow Chicago Democratic machine creature, Obama, is moving toward a second term in the White House.
Chicago is a thoroughly corrupt city. Illinois is a thoroughly corrupt state. We have many politicians who are corrupt. But the alpha males don't go to prison.
Sure, the eager hatchlings and the fools go, and fall-guy governors, and the weak-minded and the lazy. And they have years to learn about the currency of federal prison — the pouches of dried fish and postage stamps. Their wives cry and their children miss them.
But not the dominant males. Not the alphas. They're insulated and isolated. They don't grab with their own hands. All they have to do is wait and treasure falls in their laps, all under the color of law. They place their offspring in positions of power, and they have their behinds smooched by the establishment.
Corruption isn't the reason Blagojevich is going. The reason he's going is that he violated the rules. Despite his eager charm and ability to quote Kipling, he wasn't smart enough to follow the well-lit path known as the Chicago Way.
He was brought into politics by his father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, the North Side ward boss. Mell spoke for him with serious men in and around politics, and Blagojevich was made governor. There was talk of Rod becoming president one day.
And then Blagojevich's hubris got him. He fought publicly with Mell, alleging Mell was using influence over a landfill in Will County. There are two things that smart Chicago politicians never do in Illinois:
They never raise their voices about landfills. And they don't fight with the guy who brought them to the dance.
Mell fired back, saying that the FBI should investigate his son-in-law for selling jobs. But even before the FBI could jump, it was over. Nobody in politics trusted Blagojevich from then on. Without Mell's protection — and that of Mell's friends like House Speaker Michael Madigan — all that was left was to pick the bones clean.
So Blagojevich, twice elected governor, started hustling for cash, exposing himself to prosecution. He had to figure out what he could sell to buy himself a six-figure job after he left office. I'm not excusing him. He's 100 percent guilty. But if he had played ball, he would have been protected. He wouldn't have had to sell a thing. Good fortune would have blessed him.
Smart Chicago politicians understand this, guys like Obama. I'm not accusing the president of corruption, although he and Blagojevich shared a friendship with the same influence peddler, Tony Rezko.
The young Obama played the reformer, yes, but that was only a show for an adoring media. Obama would never dare challenge the alphas of Illinois. I remember being in the editorial board room at the Tribune Tower when Obama revealed this important and always overlooked aspect of his character.
"I think I have done a good job in rising politically in this environment without being entangled in some of the traditional problems of Chicago politics," Obama told me at the onset of his presidential campaign.
"I know there are those like John Kass who would like me to decry Chicago politics more frequently, and I'll leave that to his editorial commentary," Obama said, gifting me with that jewel.
Thanks, Mr. President. My commentary?
Obama walked quietly along the Chicago Way and became president.
And Blagojevich didn't, and now he's gone.