Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Blago Bracketted

By Shawn Healy
By Shawn Healy

Those searching for a quick primer on the pay-to-play scandal starring former Governor Rod Blagojevich that continues to cripple the State of Illinois would be wise to pick up Elizabeth Brackett's Pay to Play. The 236-page tome paints a portrait of a corrupt city and state, where Rod Blagojevich began his improbable rise, and whose equally stunning fall is symptomatic of a rotten political culture. Brackett, a local and national television correspondent for PBS, begins building Blagojevich as a sympathetic figure, only to document his Shakespearean slide upon reaching the pinnicle of power in the Land of Lincoln.

The son of immigrant parents, Blagojevich's tendencies were cemented at a young age. Shunning details, he was at best a mediocre student, entering Northwestern through the backdoor and later attending law school at Pepperdine when his LSAT score prohibited entry at a more prestigious institution. Upon graduation, he first flunked the bar, then upon passage, found that he lacked clout in a city that invented the term. This changed instantly when he met 33rd Ward Alderman Dick Mell's daughter Patti at a political event. They were wed two years later, and Blagojevich's political climb began on the back of a chief patronage provider, his father-in-law.

First elected to the State House of Representatives, Blagojevich felt lost as a backbencher in Springfield, and sought a promotion soon thereafter. His run for Congress centered on an opening provided by the imprisoned Dan Rostenkowski, who temporarily lent the seat to the Republican Michael Flanigan, only to see Blagojevich move it back to the Democratic column with a massive victory in 1996. His tenure in Washington was equally uninspiring, short of his role in freeing three hostages held by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Come 2002, he campaigned for Governor of Illinois as a reformer, pledging to clean up the mess left by his since imprisoned predecessor George Ryan. He narrowly bested former CPS schools chief Paul Vallas in the primary, then strolled to a general election victory over former Attorney General Jim Ryan, a victim of an unfortunate last name.

Scandal beset Blagojevich from the beginning, as he elevated pinstripe patronage to a sport, trading campaign donations for lofty political appointments and lucrative state contracts. He governed by press conference, preferring to make populist appeals in the realms of health care and public transit over handholding in a legislature dominated by his own Democratic Party during his entire tenure in office.

He was able to stave off corruption charges to secure a second term, all along dreaming of a run for the White House. Blagojevich never lived in Springfield, but even abandoned his Chicago office after 2006, interacting with aides throughout the day from home on his speakerphone. Embittered by Barack Obama's meteoric rise as presidential contender, Blagojevich resolved to share the spoils of his soon-to-be vacant Senate seat, resulting in his swift removal from office.

While this narrative has appeared in many forms elsewhere, its comprehensive, yet fluid presentation is useful for locals all-to-familiar with its specifics, and especially to those from afar previously unfamiliar with the pol with funny-sounding name, a pompadour and a penchant for Elvis. It presents President Barack Obama as an occasional foil, the Chicago politician who navigated troubled waters and somehow emerged untainted. True, Obama confidants Axelrod, Emanuel, Jarrett, and Emil Jones share intimate ties with either Blagojevich, the Daley Machine, or both, and Tony Rezko was also an equal opportunity patron. Yet Obama's straight and narrow contrasts with Blagojevich's down and dirty, and it is no wonder that one man sits in the White House while the other awaits a federal home of a different variety.

Brackett reveals that Blagojevich long admired Richard Nixon. The parallels between these two paranoid men are nothing short of eery. Their up-from-the-bootstraps backgrounds yielded unimagined political success, yet their demons, namely their delusional desire for power, led to their untimely downfall. Nixon resigned when his impeachment was written on the wall. Blagojevich's impeachment trial began on his fallen hero's birthday. Nixon said his "mother was a saint" as he boarded Marine One on the White House lawn one final time. Blagojevich cited Kipling, then Tennyson, and faded with a pledge to continue his fight.

His trial is slated for next year, and the final chapter is far from written, but Brackett's timely work is worthy of a read by any citizen seeking to end pay-to-play, political corruption, and systemic problems bigger than Blagojevich.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at