No Change for Sale

Obama looks great amid Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s scandal.

Read John Dickerson’s follow-up on the Bagojevich story here.

Rod Blagojevich

The list of federal charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is a many-splendored thing. Each act it describes is more outrageous than the last. For the moment, my favorite quote is the governor’s maxim that a Senate seat “is a fucking valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.” So true. Michael Huffington spent $30 million, John Corzine $60 million. Perhaps the devaluation of a Senate seat, like that of a governorship, only happens once you’re in office. 

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in a statement this morning that the breadth of corruption “would make (Abraham) Lincoln roll over in his grave.” Blagojevich’s phones were bugged for more than a month, which captured a lot of rich material and dark psychological terrain. While Blagojevich contemplated the string of difficulties and liabilities stemming from a three-year investigation into his administration, he was still confident enough to muse about a 2016 presidential campaign. He tried to leverage the power to appoint the next senator to replace President-elect Barack Obama into a job as Obama’s secretary of health and human services. If that didn’t work, he wanted Obama to name him an ambassador or help his wife get on some corporate boards in exchange for naming his preferred candidate to the post. (I called Obama’s office to see what it makes of all of this but haven’t heard back.)

After trying so hard to price the Senate seat at top dollar, Blagojevich may now have made it almost worthless. The 78-page rap against the sitting governor throws the question of the Illinois Senate seat into turmoil. If Blagojevich takes the Eliot Spitzer route and resigns, the lieutenant governor gets to name the pick, and the race is back on. But what if he’s as delusional as the wiretaps make him seem? That would suggest he’ll take the Ted Stevens route and stay in office while he fights the charges.

If he goes with the Ted Stevens model, one way to show that he’s innocent of nothing more than playing backroom hardball would be to proceed as planned and name Obama’s successor. But what senator would want to have “D-Blago” after his name, to be forever tainted by having been appointed by a man whose corruption appears to have been so splendid?

The charges also raise some tricky questions for all of those vying for Obama’s Senate seat. What did they or didn’t they say on the phone to the governor (or his chief of staff, John Harris, who was also indicted)? What might those working on behalf of a prospective candidate have done? There are allegations that the governor took money from at least one individual in connection with naming a successor to Obama, which means that one of the candidates for the job is having a very difficult conversation with aides right now.

If you’re a candidate for that office, how do you play it? Do you immediately denounce Blagojevich? That would ruin your chances if he stays in the job. On the other hand, if you are the first to throw him under the bus, it might put you in the best position to be appointed as a clean candidate by Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would take over if Blagojevich leaves office. Denouncing Blago might also put you in a good position to run in 2010. (I called the office of Jesse Jackson Jr., one of the leading candidates to replace Obama, but haven’t heard back.)

The person who looks great in this sordid affair, in fact, is Barack Obama, whom Blagojevich refers to by another name. According to the charges:

ROD BLAGOJEVICH said that the consultants … are telling him that he has to “suck it up” for two years and do nothing and give this “motherfucker [the President-elect] his senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him.”

According to the charges, “Blagojevich said he knew that the President-elect wanted Senate Candidate 1 for the open seat but ‘they’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. Fuck them.’ ” (Senate Candidate No. 1 seems to be Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama.) In another passage, Blagojevich fumes that if Obama doesn’t show him some love, he’ll appoint a person Obama doesn’t want. Obama comes off as good as he could possibly have hoped for: He’s behaving well even when you don’t think anyone is watching.

Still, there are questions for Obama and his team. Jarrett is one of his top advisers, and, in keeping with Obama’s public comments about transparency, she should tell the story from her side. Aides have suggested that Obama didn’t want her in the Senate but thought she would be more valuable in the White House. The indictment suggests he was pushing for her to get it. Which is it? On Nov. 9, Obama seemed to want her for the Senate seat. On the 10th, he didn’t seem to. What happened in between? Jarrett pulled herself out of the running for the Senate seat rather abruptly—did she know something funny was going on? Did Obama know something funny was going on? There are loose threads that should be taken care of.

As the old bulls retire from the Senate and Change with a capital C comes to Washington, it’s quaint to see a throwback to 19th- (or 20th-) century money-grubbing. It’s a little incredible that prostitutes weren’t involved (or aren’t yet, at least). Perhaps even more staggering is that the man at the center was so reckless while simultaneously aware of the advances in modern surveillance. As Blagojevich says at one point: “You gotta be careful how you express that and assume everybody’s listening, the whole world is listening. You hear me?” Right you are, governor.