Blagojevich's Politics Went Beyond Mutual Favors

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to auction off the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama for personal gain. Illinois politicians have a long history of bending the rules, but some say the governor went too far.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the people closely following that scandal is Scott Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition. He's a Chicago native and reported from there for years. He also wrote a political novel called "Windy City," and he remains a connoisseur of Illinois politics.

This scandal, this kind of corruption or alleged corruption, is this normal?

SCOTT SIMON: I'm afraid, alas, very normal. I do think this is in a different level, though. I mean, getting favors for a Senate appointment - I personally feel confident that if Governor Blagojevich had appointed Valerie Jarrett, who is said to be President-elect Obama's - or was - his favorite for that seat, the Obama administration would have known, at some point, Governor Blagojevich gets invited to a White House dinner with Angelina Jolie. But actually putting a Senate seat up on the auction block, that is unprecedented, even by Illinois standards.

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying is that what's different here is not that it would have happened this way, but just that it would be spoken, rather than understood.

SIMON: Style points count for a lot, I mean, in figure skating and in politics. And I think any adult in politics understands that there's an interlocking network of mutual favors. But actually putting it on the auction block, that kind of thing really is unheard of, and speaking as explicitly as they did about it - I mean, as a novelist, I took some care to have politicians speak in euphemisms, because that was my understanding of the way they do it, because they always know that the FBI or somebody could be listening.

INSKEEP: It's the political equivalent of the mobster going, yeah, did you, the guy, take care of that thing?

SIMON: Exactly. And so the whole idea of being so explicit on the telephone is something that really astonishes me.

INSKEEP: I'm glad that you mentioned a novel that you wrote, because in that novel, you have a ringing defense by one of the characters of the politician who gets his hands dirty. There's a proposal to take a guy who's above it all and make him mayor of Chicago, and this politician says, no, no, no, no, we want somebody who's got his hands dirty.

SIMON: He says everybody's always looking for somebody's who's above the battle. Well, I think the battle counts for something, each and every scar. And in Chicago, and in Illinois, I think a politician who is somewhat compromised is considered human and approachable. They might have larceny in their heart, but at least you know that they have a heartbeat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Whereas reformers are sometimes distrusted. It's significant that Harold Washington, a so-called reformer of Chicago, was actually elected after he'd been to prison for income-tax evasion. In some ways that was, I think, reassuring.

INSKEEP: Excuse me?

SIMON: It was reassuring that the guy was approachable.

INSKEEP: How do you distinguish between a politician who gets his hands dirty and a politician who's just dirty?

SIMON: Well, you know, I think people can do that when it comes to human character. I've talked to many politicians who think that there's a difference between somebody who is in office, and is sometimes visited by the normal temptations of human corruption, and somebody who runs for office because they want to get rich. There was an old Chicago politician - never indicted - named George Dunne, who very famously said, never take a dime; just give them your business card.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: And that's the way successful politicians do it.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about Governor Rod Blagojevich. How did he get to such heights, if we've got an example of his style here?

SIMON: He married well. He married the daughter of a very prominent Chicago alderman named Dick Mell. He got attention as a congressman. He ran for governor. He was elected. Now, it should be remembered that he was running for election following the investigation into George Ryan, who had been the governor, who is now serving time.

INSKEEP: Oh, so he got to be the reform guy.

SIMON: He got to be the reform guy. Very famously said in his inauguration speech, you know, we're going to do things differently. The old order has come to a screeching halt. We're going to be different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, they've certainly done things differently.

SIMON: You know, my recitation of events is incomplete if I don't make note of this. I do think the talk that we hear in there where Governor Blagojevich at one point, apparently, is interested in rescinding an $8 million payment to Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, because he wants a $50,000 bundled campaign contribution from the CEO of that hospital.

INSKEEP: Give me my slice, or we're going to take back the state money.

SIMON: Yeah. I think political bosses - which is what Blagojevich has never been, but maybe aspired to be - in the past, they always knew to draw the line around children's hospitals. I mean, you send over free turkeys, you send over free toys during Christmas time, you know, you get a lot of good publicity, and they're kids. But the whole idea of holding up a children's hospital for a campaign contribution, that approaches a new low.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing, Scott Simon, and if anyone can explain this, it's going to be you. I suppose I should be feeling grim about this terrible story of alleged corruption, and yet there's a belly laugh in this story, I think, for lots of people that I've talked to.

SIMON: You know, I'm afraid there is, because as ashamed of it as an Illinoisan, I can't get enough of it. I absolutely can't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I can't wait for Morning Edition to come on; I'm logging into every newspaper Web site that I can find. There's something about it that puts the roses in your cheeks. That being said, I think this is something that makes even hardened Chicago politicians shudder.

INSKEEP: Scott Simon, we'll be listening to what more you have to say about this tomorrow.

SIMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Thanks.

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INSKEEP: That's Scott Simon of NPR's Weekend Edition.

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INSKEEP: It's Morning Edition from NPR News.

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