Blago Trial Exposes Chicagoland's Political Rumble

The ongoing circus of the Rod Blagojevich federal corruption trial, now in its third week, has exposed the Obama Administration to a host of criticism in its dealings with the erratic and egotistical governor whose unhinged power grab in the wake of the 2008 presidential election draws on the absurd.

Over the past week, the shady underbelly of Chicagoland politics has been on display for the world, with FBI wiretaps and other testimony publicly outing the arrogant and opportunistic former Illinois politico who allegedly attempted to barter a U.S. Senate seat appointment in exchange for a political or executive-level future for himself. He was later forced out of office.

Blagojevich, who faces 24 counts of felony racketeering, extortion and bribery charges, has pleaded not guilty.

While the White House has refused to speak out publicly during the trial, wiretaps of Mr. Blagojevich’s conversations with his associates and Washington surrogates have shown the ousted governor as a desperate and bullish leader hellbent on trading a Senate seat, once occupied for Obama, for a cabinet-level post or a foundation appointment that would guarantee his status on a national stage and give him the kind of money to keep his family in high style. He pondered ambassadorships—to India, no less—and even executive roles as head of the Red Cross.

But he oddly pooh-poohed heading up the Salvation Army in discussions with his political colleagues.

“That would be huge,” he said of running the charitable non-profit. “But have to wear a uniform. Forget that.”

The brash Mr. Blagojevich also proposed that the President assist him with setting up a million-dollar foundation, a 501C (4), which he would head, according to evidence played from tapes in court. “Can he get Warren Buffett and some of his friends to help us with that,” the governor asked. “I need a place to land.”

Even as Obama, through political associates, dashed his hopes for a future political appointment, testimony showed Mr. Blagojevich’s ongoing desperation to cut a deal that would give him power. In taped conversations, Mr. Blagojevich refers to Mr. Obama as “all take and no give,” exposing his jealousy of the newly elected President, whom he dubbed “a demi-god” in one taped rant.

Both Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and his chief policy adviser Valerie Jarrett have been called to testify in the trial. Jarrett, according to testimony, was the President’s choice to fill his vacant Senate seat, but she preferred to work in the administration instead.

Wilfred McClay, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, noted that the trial, which could go on for weeks and could send Mr. Blagojevich away for more than a hundred years if convicted, offers ample evidence of the rough and rowdy political world from whence President Obama came.

“It’s always hard for a President, particularly one who is relatively new to the national scene, to extricate himself from the local political and social networks that aided his rise to the top. We saw this vividly in Bill Clinton’s case, with the many questionable Arkansas connections from which he never entirely managed to free himself.”

Historically, McClay added, there were similar issues with President Jimmy Carter’s dependence on the “Georgia Mafia” along with his quirky, folksy family. Obama is no exception.

“In fact, the disparity between the huge moral expectations generated by his campaign oratory and the moral seaminess of the actual Chicago background from which he had emerged, and which he shared with all of his closest White House advisers, is far starker than anything that had come before,” Mr. McClay said.

The sleazy side of Mr. Blagojevich, whose FBI investigation and trial has revealed his desire to use his governor’s office post to advance his own power and finances, should come as no surprise, even as his vulgar rantings and self-absorption have kept trial-watchers and political observers rapt.

“Anyone who believed it possible that a leader of exceptional moral probity and courage would emerge uncorrupted and uncompromised from the maelstrom of Chicago politics would have to believe in the political equivalent of the Immaculate Conception,” Mr. McClay said. “And such a fanciful belief is bound to be overturned by events. That is what we are seeing in the Blago affair.”