01.12.09

Inside Blago's Bunker

Midway through his impeachment procedings, the embattled, deal-making governor is hunkered down, calculating how many favors he can still call in to save his job.

Midway through his impeachment proceedings, the embattled, deal-making governor is hunkered down, calculating how many favors he can still call in to save his job.

The low-slung, yellow-brick bungalow on Chicago’s northwest side was surrounded over the weekend by a cadre of press battling boredom and heavy snow. Inside, beleaguered Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was plotting his last stand and exhibiting some delusional behavior similar to Hitler in the Führerbunker.

Impeached on Friday by the Illinois House, Blago now faces a final showdown in the state Senate. Surveying the roster of 59 senators, Blago still believes he can somehow find 20 votes to acquit him of a grocery list of allegations, according to a source privy to conversations inside the bunker. If he gets 20, he wins, because it requires a two-thirds majority to strip him of his $177,000 job and the full-time security entourage he so deeply prizes.

The governor is akin to a “feral house pet, just looking for its next meal,” one Chicago journalist explained. There’s no long-term strategy, just a focus on winning the next round.

As Blago mulled recent history and calculated which past favors may now be repaid by this senator or that senator, there was precious little negative feedback, the source says. Nobody in the bunker is willing to tell him he’s a captive of his own reveries.

For an unrelenting, at times masterful, tactician like Blagojevich, the past offers some reason to think that he can once again outflank his enemies. But it’s those very tactics that have now left him alone, isolated, and a bit off his game. Speaking at the end of a snowy jog Friday, he ham-handedly compared himself to the protagonist of the British writer Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, apparently failing to realize that the character was a petty criminal who winds up in prison.

Much of the anger with Blagojevich in the Illinois General Assembly, and among the Democratic leadership of the US Senate, stems from being outsmarted by the self-professed “C” student at Pepperdine Law School. The appointment of a Teflon African-American, Roland Burris, to Obama’s vacant Senate seat was the most recent example, leaving the congressional leadership so flummoxed they at first appeared willing to disregard the law.

In an earlier maneuver, after the state Legislature roundly rejected his plans to expand health care, Blagojevich uniliterally, by “emergency rule,” ordered state agencies to extend coverage to all households up to an income of $83,000 (for a family of four), despite the fact that no money was allocated to pay for it. And he continued to enroll clients after a court ordered him to desist. As the house impeachment panel put it, "The issue presented herein is not the merit of expanded health care coverage, but rather the authority of the governor to ignore state law.”

For a long time, such populist grandstanding kept Blagojevich’s poll numbers rising, and it was very much in evidence Friday, when he presented himself as a misunderstood man who has improved and saved lives. His props included children, senior citizens, and one young man who was grateful to the governor for the insurance he needed for a kidney transplant.

Blagojevich’s actual empathy for any of those surrounding him is arguable, given the tenor of the conversations captured on the FBI wiretaps. But for years, the voters who gave Blagojevich a second four-year term seemed willing to overlook his lax work habits, preening self-regard, and obsession with cutting deals in return for campaign funds.

It’s true, too, that Blago’s animus toward his critics has some justification. One can only imagine how he reacted to the opening sketch of this week’s Saturday Night Live, in which Rachel Maddow is supposedly interviewing a gay-bashing Blago. In fact, Blagojevich has been a strong supporter of gay rights, and his sister-in-law is a high-profile gay rights activist.

Indeed, if there were real justice, his imminent impeachment trial might include several other prominent Democrats. With control of both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, the party’s leaders bear responsibility for the state’s legislative debacle, most vividly manifested by billions of dollars in federal aid lost due to their intramural wrangling. But as with Blago’s beloved Chicago Cubs, it’s easier to fire the manager than the players.

First and foremost among those players is another cutthroat Chicagoan, Michael Madigan, leader of the Illinois House. He and his daughter, Lisa, the astute attorney general who will perhaps be governor one day, have gotten so far inside Blagojevich’s head they constitute an inoperable tumor.

During an accidental jog I shared with the governor last winter, he was engaging, smart, and discreet, except when the topic of Madigan arose. Then it became clear Blagojevich despises the man, and he explained in great detail how Madigan was responsible for the state’s depressing legislative gridlock. He was furious that we in the media “give Madigan a pass.”

But in dealing with Mike Madigan, as with so much else, the governor is akin to a “feral house pet, just looking for its next meal,” as one Chicago journalist who knows the governor well explained to me. There’s no long-term strategy, just a focus on the winning the next round.

Blago is mostly tactics and cyncism. So even as he stacked up short-term victories, he eroded trust among those who now hold his political fate in their hands, and it’s all become very personal.

It’s a good bet that he will appear as the star witness at his own impeachment trial, facing his accusers with both Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and examples of their own ample hypocrisies at hand.

And when that’s done, he can return, probably jobless, to the Blagobunker and await his certain federal indictment. He’s probably too vain and self-absorbed to end it all there. He’ll exit occasionally for lengthy jogs on Chicago’s North Side streets and alleys, flashing his Alfred E. Newman “What, me worry?” look, then return to plot jury selection and his lawyer’s opening argument.

James Warren is a former Chicago Tribune managing editor and is a political analyst for MSNBC.