Blagojevich in the Fading Spotlight

Why the embattled Illinois governor won't go quietly


The fireworks you see on the Fourth of July make an irresistible spectacle, but they can do it only in the course of destroying themselves. Rod Blagojevich, in his mad blitz across all the channels on your TV, was following a similar course. He has our attention now, but not for long.

A wise sage once said that every man labors to conceal his insignificance from himself. Politicians do so by conducting campaigns, winning elections, and basking in the deference that goes to high elected officials. No one goes into politics in an effort to learn self-effacement.

Some people, of course, enter politics from a selfless resolve to advance idealistic goals. Blagojevich, however, has never given indications of being one of those. He sees the electorate as a vast mirror reflecting his glory back on himself.

He has shown an amazing capacity to block out anything that interferes with that view. When he lost a major House vote on his health care plan by a withering margin of 107-0, he responded, "Today, I think, was basically an up. I feel good about it." So it's not surprising that he can dismiss FBI recordings and other powerfully incriminating evidence as though they were just graffiti on a men's room wall.

His televised comments this week were vintage Rod: brazen, lacking in substance, and utterly unconvincing. He explained his absence from the first three days of the Senate trial by insisting it was rigged. The legislature, he claimed, is about to "remove a governor elected twice by the people without being required to prove any wrongdoing." He lamented that he is not allowed to call witnesses on his behalf.

In fact, he is free to call witnesses, have lawyers present a defense, and appear on his own behalf—which he now says he'll do by making a closing argument, though not answering questions. His only witness impediment is that the Justice Department asked that the legislature not call anyone who might be asked to testify in the criminal prosecution—but that restriction binds his accusers as well.

In any case, much of the impeachment case concerns matters, like his efforts to circumvent the law on prescription drug imports and vaccine purchases, that are not the subject of criminal proceedings. No one is stopping him from calling witnesses on those.

Various interviewers gave him the chance to explain why his FBI-recorded words did not mean what they seem to mean. But Blagojevich declined, citing "an Illinois Supreme Court rule that requires I can't comment on the details of a pending case." This statement, I regret to inform you, departs from strict factual accuracy.

Or, as Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet puts it, "That's not true. The First Amendment protects a criminal defendant's right to comment on the charges against him, and there is no Illinois Supreme Court rule to the contrary."

The problem lawyers have with letting defendants talk is that they can incriminate themselves—a danger that became abundantly clear in his chat with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC.

Asked if he tried to force Tribune Co. to fire the anti-Blagojevich editorial board of The Tribune in exchange for tax assistance in selling Wrigley Field, he said, "And so again, without going into any detail, they're getting the benefit of these things to try to help the Cubs. We just would prefer that they don't, look, that—that the things that they're advocating that I be impeached it'd be nice if they, they laid off an issue like that."

Any impeachment trial puts a heavier burden on the accusers than the accused, because conviction requires a two-thirds majority. To keep his office, Blagojevich merely has to implant small doubts among 19 of 59 senators. Yet he chose not to even present a defense until reversing course at the last minute, practically assuring his conviction.

Why is he taking this bizarre tack? Maybe it's because he thinks he has a political future after impeachment if he can somehow beat the criminal charges, allowing him to claim vindication. But since the Senate can not only remove him from his current job but bar him from ever holding any office in the state, that seems unrealistic even by Blagojevich's standards.

More likely, he is just making the most of his opportunity to soak up every bit of TV exposure and public attention he can before being relegated to his grim future of political exile, a criminal trial, and possible prison. It won't be long now.