God knows if any of this is the president’s fault, but in their handling of the preposterous scandal surrounding Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic Party leaders under Barack Obaina have brought us all hurtling back to the nightmarish prevarication of the Clinton years — those horrifying days when the party’s enduring inability to act decisively allowed Barnum-esque con men like Ken Starr to hold all of America hostage.
For almost two decades now, the Democrats have blazed up every joint in sight, only to freeze at the crucial moment of inhalation. Clinton kicked off two excruciating terms of Solomon-esque waffling by splitting gays in the military right down the middle and ended by only half-admitting to being swallowed whole by an intern named Monica Lewinsky. Then came history’s first three-base balk in Florida (with James Baker waving Bush around to score), followed by a senseless war in Iraq that Democrats thought to oppose only once it became inexpedient to support.
All this bullshit, we hoped, might end with Barack Obama. But then came Blagojevich, a sleazeball whose massively publicized success in scheming a way to drop turd in the new president’s inaugural punchbowl is a gate-crashing leap above station on the order of Paris Hilton screwing her way into a speaking role in Gandhi or Amadeus. It’s a political disaster that happened only after Democrats once again froze in the headlights at the crucial moment, trying to flee in two different directions at once while a third-rate bookie in a tracksuit seized control of the U.S. Senate.
The irony is, before the curtain on his act got pulled back by the FBI, Blagojevich somehow got himself elected as an Obama-style reformer, railing against corruption and entrenched power. In fact, Obama himself helped craft Blagojevich’s first campaign in 2002 against the “business as usual” administration of his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, serving as a key adviser along with current Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
How Barack and Rahm could have missed what the guy was all about seems like a mystery now — the gnomish Blagojevich, with his wiglike bob of purplish pimp hair, flat-out looks like a slimeball, or an escapee from a movie about sexually deviant mobsters. Ami indeed, almost immediately upon election, Blagojevich contrived to sell a truly awesome smorgasbord of state jobs and regulatory favors to the highest bidder — everything from contracts for Dunkin’ Donuts franchises at toll oases to a state-parks administrator job allegedly bought with a $1,500 check to Blagojevich’s seven-year-old daughter. The governor even allegedly tried to buy the firing of editors from the Chicago Tribune by offering to help the newspaper’s owners dodge their tax bill on Wrigley Field. “Our recommendation is fire all those fucking people, get ’em the fuck out of there and get us some editorial support,” the governor says on one federal wiretap, channeling the spirit of Richard Nixon.
But the worst stuff comes when Blagojevich almost audibly drools over the prospect of selling Obama’s seat. A Senate seat, the governor is heard saying to one adviser, is a “fucking valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing.” Two days later, it’s more of the same: “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden, and uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” he says. Blagojevich had a whole Christmas list of shit he wanted from Obama’s people in return for a favorable appointment, including a Cabinet position, an ambassadorship, a job for his wife, Patricia, or a $300,000 post with a union-backed group.
Encouragingly, Blagojevich appeal’s not to have gotten anywhere with Obama’s people. He is heard on tape complaining that Obama won’t even consider his offers: “For nothing? Fuck him.” As far as direct contacts between Obama’s and Blagojevich’s camps, all we really know is that the governor and his deputy John Harris on five or six occasions spoke by phone with Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff. In one of the calls, Emanuel reportedly made the case for Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, to which Harris replied that if Blagojevich did pick Jarrett, “all we get in return is appreciation, right?” To which Emanuel, thankfully, said, “Right.”
That the chief of staff of the president-elect of the United States knew enough not to openly buy a Senate appointment on the telephone with a gubernatorial staffer known to be under both state and fed- era] investigation is, I guess, minimally reassuring. But the Blagojevich affidavit is nonetheless a supremely shocking document, even to those of us who already have the lowest of expectations when it comes to American politicians. In the wake of the scandal involving former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman — a similar if smaller-scale mess involving a big-league politician allegedly trolling for cash — the sight of the governor of Illinois feverishly tricking out every last inch of his political body like a sweat-drenched 250-pound North Texas hooker makes one wonder if America’s slide into Third World status is now officially irreversible.