There are plenty of ways to make a fortune off a political office, but Rod Blagojevich wasn’t bright enough to figure any of them out.
You can write a bestselling book and earn enough money to buy a house in Kenwood. (Although not quite enough to buy the lot next door. You’ll need help from a real-estate developer friend.)
You can join an investment banking firm and collect an $18.5 million payday when the company is sold.
You can operate a law firm that represents dozens of clients who do business with the city of Chicago. But it’s not a conflict with your duties as an alderman, because you’re only helping them get property tax breaks from the county.
You can retire after 40 years in public office and take a job with a law firm that profited greatly when you retained it to help sell off the city’s parking meters.
All those actions are perfectly legal, and perfectly lucrative. But Blagojevich didn’t do anything like that. Blagojevich is so dense he didn’t make any money off his governorship, but he’s still going to prison. Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, Ed Burke and Richard M. Daley are all millionaires, and they’re walking around free.
Blagojevich was never in their league as a politician. He made the most important connection of his career when he walked into a fundraiser and asked a partygoer, “Which one is Patty Mell?”
A few years later, his new father-in-law asked him to run for the state legislature. If Blagojevich hadn’t married the 33rd Ward boss’s daughter, he’d be a mediocre lawyer instead of a convicted felon. But it was his desire to be a big shot, and it was his frustration at seeing Obama and Emanuel pass him by on the road to Washington that led him to hold the harebrained conversations about trading Obama’s Senate seat for a bigger job. (Didn’t Blagojevich see Goodfellas? Paul Cicero never did business over the phone. And from now on, I’ll bet no Illinois politician does, either.)
If Blagojevich had been a talented politician, he wouldn’t have needed to grift. He would have had a good job waiting for him, at a law firm, at a lobbying firm, at a non-profit, in Obama’s cabinet. And if the job had been with a company that profited during his term in office, well, everyone has to make a living, don’t they?
Blagojevich is no more corrupt or compromised than most of the politicians in Illinois.
His mistake? The deals he was trying to make are supposed to be unspoken, or, at most, suggested with a handshake and a quiet word at a fundraiser. Blagojevich was foolish enough to speak out. He’s not going to prison because he tried to profit from his office. If that were a crime, every ex-politician would be in prison. He’s going to prison because he wasn’t smooth or smart enough to do it the right way.
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