The Player From Chicago

Greed Made Blagojevich Fall

Posted May 4, 2009 at 4:20pm

Elizabeth Brackett, a Chicago-based correspondent for “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,— was struck by the way Rod Blagojevich’s career tracks President Barack Obama’s — to a point.

The two men were boldly ambitious and the sons of immigrants with unusual last names. Each was elected to the Illinois Legislature in his mid-30s, and Blagojevich was elected to the governorship in his mid-40s, about the same age that Obama was when he was elevated to the Senate.

But that’s where their paths diverged.

Brackett, the author of the newly released book “Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow,— has covered politics in Illinois for three decades and remembers the race of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, as one of her first stories. She became aware of young Blagojevich when his father-in-law began pushing him for the state House.

“Initially I knew him as Alderman Dick Mell’s guy,— she told Roll Call. “I thought … he’s very charming, he’s very charismatic. I thought his career was being pushed by his father-in-law, but he seemed to be a fairly decent guy.—

Blagojevich’s quick rise from the state House to the U.S. House to the governorship fueled his ambition to become president someday. He first sought out Washington, D.C.-based campaign consultants in 2002 when he was running for governor, and he continued to solicit their advice as he governed Illinois. Bob Arya, who wrote speeches for Blagojevich, told Brackett that the governor’s speeches had to be approved by Bill Knapp, a media consultant in the nation’s capital.

“Knapp had a very strong influence on Rod. I drafted the first budget address that he gave in ’07, including the gross receipts tax. It had to be faxed to Bill Knapp, who was on his way to the Virgin Islands,— Arya told Brackett. “He came up with some changes that vilified business — you know, Blagojevich was running a national populist agenda through Bill Knapp! I mean Knapp was determining the state’s priorities because he was trying to set Rod up in the national spotlight!—

That national spotlight was also blinding Blagojevich when it came to raising money under Illinois’ loose campaign finance laws. According to Brackett, his greed led to his ultimate downfall, as he or his aides pressured hospitals and contractors to contribute to Friends of Blagojevich in exchange for state funding or business and as they promised seats on state boards to generous donors. His attempt to sell Obama’s vacant Senate seat was the last straw.

Brackett misses no opportunity to mention Blagojevich’s obsession with his head of dark hair. His advance man was required to have a hairbrush, referred to as the football, with him at all times, and Blagojevich could be seen running it through his hair repeatedly before public appearances. Staffers saw it as a nervous habit.

Staffers saw more serious evidence that Blagojevich was having mental problems. In her book, Brackett explores the possibility that Blagojevich is narcissistic. She said psychologists she spoke to wouldn’t give their assessment on the record because they had never analyzed the politician, but aides said Blagojevich fit the Mayo Clinic’s definition of a narcissistic personality disorder: “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they’re superior to others and have little regard for other people’s feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem, vulnerable to the slightest criticism.—

Brackett was in Chicago’s Hyde Park on election day and in Washington for Obama’s inauguration. That put in stark perspective the rise of one politician and the fall of another, she said.

“The entire state was having a split personality,— she said, “a nervous breakdown with these two politicians.—

Brackett handed in her book March 6, after Blagojevich’s removal from office. She hasn’t decided whether she might follow up her first book with a second one on the former governor’s criminal trial, which she anticipates won’t begin for at least a year.

“Writing one was hard,— she said, laughing.