In Defense of Blago

The now-former governor of Illinois is getting a raw deal. It’s not that he’s innocent. It’s that, compared to the greats of Illinois corruption, he’s not guilty enough.

01.30.09 10:39 AM ET

As a son of Illinois, I think I speak for all from the Land of Lincoln when I say that impeached Gov. Blagojevich was an embarrassment.

His name does not deserve to even be mentioned in the same sentence with the greats ensconced in the annals of Illinois political corruption: State Auditor Orville Hodge, Secretary of State Paul “Shoebox” Powell, and the Govs. Kerner, Walker, and Ryan. I could go on.

His is a hollow corruption. Oh, he talks a good game, prancing around on The View and Larry King. His wiretapped recordings sound like an audition tape for a low budget Serbo-mafioso Godfather knockoff.

“Blago” has been charged by federal prosecutors with talking about committing a crime.

But what has he actually done? “Blago” has been charged by federal prosecutors with talking about committing a crime.

Show me the money! Show me the victims!—and , please, don’t say “the citizens of Illinois.” That nauseates me.

The Greats used to take cash, no credit cards accepted. As a lad I read of the exploits of Illinois auditor Orville Hodge, who took millions of dollars in bribes and had a fat bank account, four cars, two planes, and homes in Illinois and Florida to show for it. Real corruption, that was! A racetrack owner in suburban Chicago claimed $100,000 in payoffs to Gov. Kerner on her income tax as a “cost of doing business” in the state.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald doesn’t get it. Chicago has always run smoothly and efficiently, thanks, as a well-oiled machine. If you didn’t know the right cog to grease, well your friendly Democratic precinct captain was happy to help with that. As a courthouse reporter in Chicago, I looked forward excitedly to what seemed like almost weekly indictments of elected officials, after which Mayor Daley would say that he was “shocked and dismayed”—every time.

I figured everyone knew that government, like pro wrestling, was fixed—at every level—a belief that was re-enforced when the Vice-President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, was found to be taking bags of cash in the White House. Spectacular! Would that he was from Peoria.

Blagojevich cheapens Illinois’ rich heritage. In dreams, I see my grandmother rocking by the fire as she stitches quilts bearing the likenesses of bagmen in Honest Abe’s administration. I think I can almost recall clipping newspaper accounts of noteworthy official corruption cases and making a decoupage for my Illinois Official Corruption merit badge.

Sure, they’ll nail Blago on something, and he’ll go to prison, where he’d best do something fast about the hair, and where he’ll sit alone in the cafeteria because the other inmates would never associate with a guy who’s doing time for talking about committing a crime.

We of Illinois—7 percent of whom still support our governor—must hope and pray now that the feds will come up with millions of ill-gotten dollars in a Blago secret bank account, or a Vegas boondoggle at taxpayer’s expense, or state workers remodeling his chalet…something!

We are a proud people. When I was at the University of Illinois, I was arrested, along with scores of others, for underage beer drinking by agents of then Secretary of State Paul Powell (who once said, “the only thing worse than a defeated politician is a broke one”). All of us under arrest paid the same attorney, and all charges were dropped. When Secretary Powell died, at least $800,000 in cash was found in shoeboxes in his closet. I like to think some of those dollars were mine.

Emmy Award-winning journalist Bill Geist has been a correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning for two decades.