Press Box

Sympathy for Blago

Granted, he’s a sleaze, but how solid is the government’s case?

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich

If Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is immediately guilty of anything, it’s of making overt what other politicians make covert, and doing so while the wiretaps roll.

Despite the sensational treatment given the arrest of Blagojevich and aide John Harris in today’s New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, the governor has yet to be charged with attempting to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. All those juicy details about Blagojevich making plans to trade the Senate seat for a position in the Obama Cabinet, another job, financial support, or jobs for his wife appear in the complaint   brought yesterday. * But U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald has yet to file charges over the alleged attempt to sell the seat.

It could be that Fitzgerald will eventually file expansive charges against Blagojevich for discussing the sale of the Senate seat and the other allegations he detailed in a press briefing yesterday. As Fitzgerald put it, he’d arrested the governor “in the middle of what we can only describe as a political corruption crime spree” and that “we’re not going to predict that other charges will or will not be filed.” (Scott Turow speculates in today’s New York Timesthat Fitzgerald accelerated the investigation to block Blagojevich from peddling the Senate seat.)

So far, the actual charges against Blagojevich and Harris are very narrow. The complaint says they “corruptly solicited and demanded a thing of value”—the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers by the paper’s owners—in exchange for “millions of dollars in financial assistance by the State of Illinois” for Wrigley Field, which is owned by the newspaper’s corporate father, the Tribune Co.

Blagojevich’s first mistake was asking the Tribune Co. for way too little in return for the state’s financial favors. What allegedly angered him was a Sept. 29 editorial calling on the Illinois House to explore his impeachment and an Oct. 25 endorsement of a state representative—a dentist—for re-election. The editorial observed that the representative was the “only dentist in the legislature. Can he extract a governor?”

I can’t believe that the governor wanted to extract absolute revenge for these minor offenses. Besides, there is no way that the scalps of a bunch of meddlesome editorial writers are worth the $100 million in financial assistance mentioned in the complaint. For purposes of comparison, I could have Arthur Sulzberger Jr. vanquish the entire New York Times editorial board tomorrow for $11,524, and if I really wanted to rub Sulzberger’s nose in it, I could make him extend William Kristol’s op-ed page contract for another year. If Blagojevich is as corrupt as the headlines make him out to be, wouldn’t he hold the Tribune Co. up for something a little more tangible than a few firings? Or is he really that dumb?

Blagojevich’s second mistake was to air his demands in a phone call to Harris. Crime bosses and corrupt politicians never say anything of substance in meetings or phone calls. When engineering a transaction, they know enough to insulate themselves beneath layers of underlings—or to encourage their trading partner to figure out which quid pro quo is desired.

Unremarked upon in today’s coverage is the question of why the state of Illinois is in the business of dispensing $100 million in financial favors to billion-dollar corporations like the Tribune Co. in the first place. To paraphrase Michael Kinsley, the scandal isn’t what’s illegal. It’s what’s legal. (Over at Cato, Jim Harper writes of how politicians fawned over by lobbyists and staff “tend to collapse together the public interest and their personal interests.”)

As for the accusation that Blagojevich was prepared to sell Illinois’ open Senate seat, the only concrete information I can find about that in the complaint is intercepted conversations between the governor and his associates, a fundraiser, and a union official speculating about what he could expect to get in return for the appointment.

Before we turn down the sheets on Blagojevich’s prison cot, let’s see transcripts of him actually making a money deal or power deal with somebody for the Senate seat. Even U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald says his office isn’t “trying to criminalize people making political horse trades on policies or that sort of thing.”

 As for other possibly criminal conduct by Blagojevich—such as attempting to shake down corporations for campaign contributions in return for state funding—he appears oblivious to how easy it is to legally swap political favors for position, power, and money. And for that ignorance the governor has my complete sympathy.


“The subject of criminal rehabilitation was debated recently in City Hall. It’s an appropriate place for this kind of discussion because the city has always employed so many ex-cons and future cons,” Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Tribune on March 6, 1985. Send appropriate Roykoisms to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a Press Box correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Blago in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to

Correction, Dec. 10, 2008: The original version of this article mistakenly referred to an “indictment” in the Blagojevich case when it should have referred to a “complaint.” The article has been changed. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)