12:01 AM CST, December 8, 2011
In sentencing the second consecutive Illinois governor to prison on political corruption charges on Wednesday, federal Judge James Zagel prodded the people of this corrupt state to reclaim their birthright.
He spoke of public trust and public cynicism, the obligations of the electorate in a state where corruption is the norm, and the responsibilities of those who hold public office. He was speaking directly to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whom he sent to federal prison for almost a generation.
"When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired," Judge Zagel told Blagojevich. "You did that damage."
Since most of you weren't there, let me tell you how it was watching the man in the black robe, a shock of white hair, a flat face with touches of Spencer Tracy in it. Zagel has a deliberate and clear way of talking and thinking, and he did it all in a relentless monotone.
It took place in a large room lit by fluorescent light, a room crowded, yet almost as cold as a meat locker.
Still, even from far off, taxpayers paid attention. The folks who always play by the rules always paid attention. We're the chumbolones of Illinois who keep filling the public trough with our cash. And more and more of us are paying attention every day.
But as Gov. Dead Meat was going down, the Illinois boss hogs who make their fortunes leveraging public office against private commerce weren't there. These are prudent creatures, hungry, yes, but as furtive as shrews. They kept a safe distance. Yet I'm certain they could feel the tingles running up and down their legs, reaching to their spines.
It wasn't Zagel's words. Many of the Illinois political class are expert in the lawmaking arts, and adept at using words as weapons. They use words to gather treasure, and words to dig escape tunnels, and words to bludgeon enemies.
They use words to levy taxes on some, and give tax breaks to special friends, and send regulators to crush those who cause problems, and all under the color of law. So it would wouldn't have been Zagel's words that frightened them.
It would have been Zagel's math and that magic number:
That's how old Blagojevich will be when he gets out after 12 years, the time he's expected to serve of his 14-year sentence.
It's not an easy 67, with a golfer's tan and a condo on Marco Island, a fishing boat and the kids graduated from college, your wife fixing you a vodka tonic, cool breeze, fine sunset coming.
No, this is a hard 67, a Blago 67, the man broke and broken and no prospects for anything better.
When the number hit Rod he sat quietly in his seat, without expression, perhaps he was hoping there was an alternate ending to the movie and they'll show it to him someday. When he finally walks out of Terre Haute or wherever they'll send him, Blagojevich will be pushing 70, too young to die and too old to build.
If that doesn't freeze the grabby fingertips of the Illinois political class, nothing will.
It's obviously a hard and terrible result for his family. His innocent girls will have grown. Who knows what Patti will do? Columnist Jimmy Breslin hung around during the first trial, supposedly writing a Blago book. I hope it's finished before Blago leaves for prison.
"The fact is that this defendant did not want to be told he was about to commit illegal acts, and he allowed his family to assume a very different risk," said Zagel.
Is Rod Blagojevich strong enough to deal with what's coming to him? I don't think so. He's perpetually immature. And I hope that the U.S. Bureau of Prisons watches out for him.
Some of us in court remembered how immature he was when his father-in-law, Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, brought him around the City Hall press room, telling us the eager candidate for state legislator would be governor or president someday. Zagel noted it, too, and said that immaturity led to his fall.
"You used your powers only for yourself," Zagel said. "You're an immature man. There is the impatience, and the endless talking, the lack of focus, the need for praise and plaudits from grandmothers who got a free ride on the bus."
Then Zagel also noted that "the American people invariably get the government they deserve."
It is true. We vote, or we don't vote, and naturally we deserve the government we give to ourselves.
"The harm here," said Zagel, "is not measured in the value of money and property. The harm is the erosion of the public trust in government."
That's not Blagojevich's doing alone. He was governor, yes, but that's a title. There are others even more accomplished who deserve as much if not more federal attention.
For more than a century, the thugs who've run governments in Illinois have pushed good people around. This Combine of Democrat and Republican insiders thrives on large government, and chops down any weeds that grow to threaten them.
But a prison sentence like this one, a real sentence of 12 years, a sentence to freeze them and frighten them, that's something. It's called a start.
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