Commentary: Imagine the thoughts in Blagojevich's veins

Chicago TribuneJune 29, 2011 

A blue vein ran along the back of Rod Blagojevich's left hand, snaking back from the base of his index finger as the former governor of Illinois took that beating in federal court Monday.

Sliding across the flat of the hand, that vein turned back toward the thumb, splitting, raised, then finally running to hide inside the cuff of that fine blue suit worn by Dead Meat.

He was still, hardly moving, only a few feet away as the beating rained down on him, all that prison time coming, and even with all of that, the back of his suit was perfectly flat. There was not even one wrinkle in it.

He was mute, perhaps numb, but that vein of his did all the talking.

His wife, Patti, wearing a white suit of a boucle knit, sobbing in her brother's arms, shaking her head "no" as she sat in the seat in front of me, the clerk reading the 17 guilty criminal verdicts, "With respect to count 12 in the indictment, we the jury find the defendant guilty. ..." There was meter to the chant of his guilt, and it went on like that for some time, with the clerk tolling off the counts as if in liturgy, and Rod finally still, except for that vein pulsing away in the forgotten hand.

At least he'd finally stopped acting. Dead Meat didn't have to play a part anymore. There was nobody to charm, nobody to convince. All he had to do was sit there and take it.

And I wonder if Dead Meat had time then to consider the arc of his life as the perfect Chicago political cautionary tale:

The desperate kid who wanted to be liked, the boy who married the ward boss's daughter, the kid who ingratiated his way into the 5th Congressional District, and who, with the help of patronage armies of knuckle draggers, was finally elected governor as a self-professed reformer.

It all began to fall apart for him around Christmas of 2004, when Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell, 33rd, had a very public falling out over an in-law's role in a Will County landfill.

It got ugly, then it got uglier, and when it became public, drawing the attention of the FBI, Blagojevich was becoming Dead Meat.

Mell accused Blagojevich of trading public-sector jobs for campaign donations and said publicly that he had been replaced in Dead Meat's inner circle by his son-in-law's friend, contractor Christopher Kelly.

Mell, a movie buff and fan of film noir, described himself as the loyal wife who'd been dumped for a trophy girlfriend in this quote to the Sun-Times in 2005:

"Now he's at the top, and he says, 'What a great man I am,' and she says, 'Wait a second, I remember when you were crying that we needed more money, or you were crying because you thought you'd fail one of the tests.' He with his gigantic ego cannot stand that anymore. So he jettisons that wife. And he gets a new trophy wife. I am the old wife. The new wife is Chris Kelly."

And the new wife, Chris Kelly, killed himself years later, in September of 2009, after he'd been netted in the case called Operation Board Games. Kelly couldn't take the pressure.

Operation Board Games has exposed what I've been calling the bipartisan Illinois Combine, in which powerful Democrats work with powerful Republicans to gorge from the public trough and call it legal.

Kelly, a Democrat with many city of Chicago airport contracts, was indicted along with multimillionaire Republican powerbroker William Cellini in an attempted extortion scheme of an investment firm doing state business.

Cellini's trial is scheduled for October.

Blagojevich has always been nothing but an amateur, a pimple, compared with Cellini's Renaissance mastery of politics and policy. Perhaps that's why they call Cellini "the Pope," as if he's some kind of Springfield Borgia.

So at a news conference after the Blagojevich verdict on Monday, I asked U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald if Blagojevich might testify as a prosecution witness in Cellini's case, but Fitzgerald declined to comment.

Once Blagojevich and Mell fell out, once they began fighting and blaming each other and airing the family's dirty laundry, once Mell publicly accused his son-in-law of corruption, it was over for Blagojevich.

Without Mell guarding his flank, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan had no qualms about cutting Dead Meat to size. And that was just the politics.

The FBI also picked up on the family feud, which spiraled into a federal investigation, which led to the guilty verdicts, which led to that blue vein pulsing in Blagojevich's left hand on Monday.

And after the guilty counts had been read, Rod turned to Patti and touched his lips as the jury filed out. "All rise," said the bailiff, and everyone stood, even Rod. The only ones who kept their seats in the courtroom were Patti and her brother. Moments later, Rod kissed her. As he put his chin over her right shoulder, you could see that his eyes were wet.

"Patti and I obviously are very disappointed in the outcome," Dead Meat told reporters in the courthouse lobby. "I, frankly, am stunned."

Perhaps he was the only one.

ABOUT THE WRITER

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him email at jskass@tribune.com.

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