Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Dick and Rod, Fellow Strivers

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Most young Democrats aspiring to a political career model themselves after a president from their own party. Bill Clinton kept a bust of FDR on his desk. Alexi Giannoulias tries to talk like Barack Obama.

    Not Rod Blagojevich. His idol was none other than Richard M. Nixon. When Blago was a law student at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, Calif., he stalked Nixon for an autograph.

    Now that the prosecution is playing Blagojevich’s phone calls, we’re beginning to understand the similarities between the two men. On the Watergate tapes, recorded inside the Oval Office, Nixon unleashed so many words unsuitable for publication that “Expletive Deleted” became the number one catchphrase of 1974.

    But Blagojevich and Nixon have much more in common than a love for profanity. Blagojevich identified with the disgraced president because he saw Nixon as a lower-class striver struggling to succeed in a profession full of snobs. Nixon’s father was a grocer and a failed lemon rancher. Blagojevich’s was a steel worker. Unable to afford the Ivy League, Nixon attended Whittier, his hometown college. Blagojevich commuted to school at Northwestern, a wealthy private school where he was aware of his proletarian, immigrant roots.

    “Blagojevich also identified with Nixon's own self-image as a political outsider,” Time magazine wrote after Blagojevich was arrested. “Indeed, the young Blagojevich was something of a loner in college, keeping to himself as he traveled daily from his home in Chicago to the Northwestern campus in nearby Evanston. The future governor, says his old friend, was always ‘aware that he was a bit different from most of the kids on campus, and sort of proud of it. There was without questions an “I’ll show them” edge to him.’”

    Nixon once explained to an aide what drove him: “What starts the process really are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid,” he said. “But if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.”

    As we learned during Watergate, Nixon kept an “enemies list.” As far as we know, Blagojevich never committed his resentments to paper, but they came bursting out in dozens of phone calls. To a tight circle of trusted henchmen, he made scathing remarks about fellow politicians who had outhustled or outperformed him, and were on their way to Washington while he was stuck in Springfield. For Nixon, no political triumph was ever enough to satisfy his desire for revenge. Even while on his way to a 49-state victory over George McGovern, he abetted the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate apartment building. On both the Watergate tapes and the Blagojevich tapes, one can hear the same insecurity, the same need to be reassured by sycophants.

    In the 1970s, Blagojevich often defended Nixon, asserting that Watergate was just politics as usual, and that if Nixon had burned the tapes, the scandal would have disappeared. After he was arrested, though, Blagojevich called himself the “anti-Nixon” because he insisted that all the prosecutor’s tapes by played before the General Assembly.

    It’s no coincidence that Nixon and Blagojevich both ended their careers in the same historical hell: Nixon as the only president to resign from office, and Blagojevich as the only Illinois governor to be impeached. The same insecurities that drove them to the top ensured that not even the top was high enough for them. And in reaching beyond their achievements, they both fell.