Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Actually, you’ve probably only heard this one if you know me, because I tell it to everyone I know. Back in 2009 when Rod Blagojevich was on the book tour for his totally, 100-percent, no-doubt-about-it unbiased and air-clearing memoir, The Governor, I caught up with him at a local bookstore. I had him sign a copy of the book as a gift for a friend, and asked if he would sign the TOC end-of-the-year issue, which featured a caricature of him festooned in his black tracksuit, and his wife, Patti, eating a bug (à la her appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!). He seemed excited to, and left the epigraph, “Jonathan, you sir are f’n golden.”
It was surreal, it was hilarious, it was kind of dumb. It was Blagojevich, the man who will go down in history as Illinois’s greatest liar.
Great liar is part of the politician’s résumé, right beneath ethically questionable lawyer and above wearer of boring ties. University of Chicago political-science professor John Mearsheimer, author of Why Leaders Lie, has even agreed that politicians should “Lie selectively, lie well and ultimately be good at what [they] do.” But Mearsheimer was talking about, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly lying about German U-boats attacking the USS Greer to pull us into a war we needed to enter. He probably wasn’t talking about the fucking golden U.S. Senate seat that Blago wasn’t just going to give away for fucking nothing. In other words, the governor broke all three of Mearsheimer’s rules. So why should we consider him our greatest liar?
First, it must be acknowledged, the whole thing was entertaining. Starting with his arrest in December 2008, his true clown nature has risen to the surface, unleashing months of high-octane, lowbrow humor. Our deposed governor served as an Elvis-impersonator-for-hire at a corporate barbecue. He ran through each of the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno, all the way to The View, where his journey was rewarded with a Joy Behar noogie. The entire Letterman audience laughed at him when he declared, “I did nothing wrong.”
Voters never know when politicians are lying, so we have to assume they always are, and that mistrust leads to detachment. But did you ever see a voter base more engaged than when Blago embarked on his bizarre, desperate and not even slightly humiliating media tour after his impeachment in January 2009? Sure, they may have been laughing at him, but people were, for once, paying attention. The extravagant lie was our ticket in.
But here’s really why the man’s whoppers were so meaningful to the people of Illinois: They accomplished the opposite of their intent. Rather than obscure the truth, they revealed exactly who Blago is. There was always something craven about the way Blagojevich governed, from pandering to seniors while crippling public transportation by mandating they ride free, to allegedly offering to allow at least one unfriendly reporter to stay at the governor’s mansion in Springfield (since Blago mostly, and oddly, worked out of Chicago). And though you could always catch whiffs of bad smells coming from his administration, you could never put your finger on the source, until his lies came back to bite him.
What’s more, they didn’t bite only him. Once he was arrested, the rusty machinations of a dying political apparatus were exposed as Roland Burris did the walk of shame into his Senate seat, and corruption was elevated from colorful back story to serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Blago now embarks on his retrial after being convicted on only one count last year (notably, for lying to the FBI). Since that day in 2008, when he lay in a fetal position as FBI officers attempted to escort him out of his home, he has tried to cast himself as a folk hero, the man wronged by the system, despite the fact that he was the system’s lead engineer. In that way, I kind of love the guy. If he’d just given up, he’d be a villain. But the way he’s clowned and mugged ever since, you get the feeling that he believes his own lies, which, to my mind, also makes him Illinois’s greatest tragicomic figure. Sometimes I see him jogging down the street, just waiting for someone to call out his name so he can smile and wave, a jovial ghost of his former self.
And about that former self: Let’s not forget that, most meaningfully, Blago’s lies got him out of office. Which makes them, in the end, his greatest gift to all of us.