The Day after the Blago Arrest

Chicago media get vocal on the gubernatorial scandal

After yesterday’s federal court hearing in which Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris heard the charges brought against them, Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky said that his client “is very surprised and certainly feels that he did not do anything wrong.” The nonchalance of this statement, and the adjectives that Sorosky uses to describe Blago’s state of mind—“sad, surprised and innocent”—jar with the sense of moralistic outrage that characterizes today’s Chicago-area editorials and columns.

They are, unsurprisingly, strongly worded. The Southtown Star’s editorial leads the no-question-about-how-we-feel category with its title: “Our View: Get Out, Gov,” and brief explanation: “We’ve had enough. This nation is in a crisis…He must resign now.”

The Daily Herald’s editorial agrees in principle (“Governor should resign immediately”), but takes a more pragmatic tone: “It will be near impossible for him to have any effectiveness in the legislative process with these charges hanging over his head.”

And the Chicago Tribune’s editorial wins for eloquence: “Rod Blagojevich is, more than before, the governor who cannot govern.”

John Kass was the first opinion columnist featured this morning at the Tribune’s Web site, and he pulls his punches, writing, “This is not Camelot. This is Chicago. And a governor is on the grill.” Addressing the potential fallout for Obama, he adds that while “Illinois isn’t surprised…the national media must be shocked,” and warns that while many “see Obama as some pristine creature…unstained by our grubby politics,” the president-elect at some point “must address the stench in his home state.”

(Kass also offered up some context for the situation when he appeared yesterday on “Kathy and Judy,” a radio show on WGN, a Tribune-owned station. By turns amused and fuming, he praised U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald: “Everything changed when U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald brought Patrick Fitzgerald here to be the United States attorney. And all of a sudden…it wasn’t Jim Thompson and his collective guys running the U.S. attorney’s office anymore. It was an outsider who didn’t want to run for governor, an outsider who didn’t care about being a member of a white shoes law firm with a corner office…you’ll never clean everything up, but it’s just astounding to see when people actually realize how filthy this state is.”)

The Tribune’s Mary Schmich uses her column to address that filthiness (“Yeah, well, bleep you, too.”), but ends it with a somber plea: “Even if these charges haven’t been proven, they’re so strong and the evidence is so compelling that this state and this city are weakened if you stay. Give up your job. Give Illinois back.”

The Chicago Sun-Times prominently features several of their columnists writing on the Blago affair. Mary Mitchell dashes off a rather one-tone column, basically asking, “How could anyone be that dumb?” But Neil Steinberg and Lynn Sweet hit the mark with vociferous opinions.

Sweet, the Sun-Times Washington bureau chief, mentions the egregiousness of Blagojevich’s actions, even within the lineage of the state’s history of corruption: “Usually in Illinois, politicians know how to walk right up to the pay-to-play line and not cross it. Based on this complaint, it looks like Blagojevich, a runner, leaped across the line in a variety of schemes to try to leverage the appointment.” And she adds what most surprises her, a reminder of how removed Blagojevich’s desires were from reality:

What’s hard to believe is that Blagojevich thought that Obama would appoint him to any slot in his administration. Blagojevich was under a cloud during Obama’s entire presidential campaign, and the Obama team kept him at a distance. The Illinois governor never stumped for Obama — they did not want him — and unlike other Democratic governors, he did not play any significant role in the campaign.

Steinberg calls Blagojevich’s reign an “obscenity of governance” and points out what most astounds him—the governor’s lack of common sense:

The actions that led to these charges transpired within the past few weeks — that’s the most incredible part of all — long after a rational corrupt official would know that the heat is on and he should lay low. Any idiot, any speeding driver with half a brain at least slows down when he passes a squad car with a radar gun out.

Blago sped up. What could he have been thinking? And what should we be thinking now?”

Indeed, that last question—what happens next, and what are we to think—floats throughout this morning’s opinion offerings. In the news coverage, it doesn’t get answered very well, mostly because this is merely the start of a very long news narrative: early this morning, the top story at the Sun-Times Web site boasted the headline, “What Next?” with a picture of Blago-in-transit splayed across the front. But the article didn’t answer the question, other than to report that the governor was released and returned home by way of a back ally, and that federal agents “also executed search warrants at the offices of Friends of Blagojevich.” (Another article now offers some more concrete bullet points.)

But editorial and opinion writers are having their say on the what’s next question, even if the story is changing too quickly for their columns. On the topic of the open Senate seat, a Daily Herald editorial earnestly calls for the governor to make his appointment quickly, and comes out in favor of Jesse Jackson Jr., a “thoughtful, articulate and independent veteran…[who] clearly shares the values and goals of the man he would be replacing.” But the Sun-Times’s Sweet says the opposite, advising: “Let the Senate opening sit for now. Blagojevich is under no timetable to pick. Illinois will loose a little seniority if a new junior senator is not in place in a few weeks, but that’s minor compared to the mess the state is in right now.” Sweet now updates her take, given that the Illinois General Assembly has decided to meet next week to strip the governor of his appointment power: “If a brazen Blagojevich insists on selecting an Obama successor in the meantime — who in their right mind would accept? — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will invoke a rarely used power that senators have to decide whom to seat.”

In the midst of the seriousness, there are, of course, a few more humorous takes. The Sun-Times’ Steinberg notes that he hurried over to the Thompson Center, where the state government offices are located, expecting to see a meltdown in action. “Silly me,” he writes. There was instead, “near the elevators, a big sign, ‘HAPPY HOLIDAYS’ in red letters, two feet high. Underneath, ‘Governor Rod Blagojevich,’ written in an unmistakable cash green.”

First the Tribune and now the Sun-Times can’t resist shining a light on Patricia Blagojevich, the governor’s wife. Both papers carry news reports that manage to needle the first lady some for her foul mouth. The Trib’s Stacy St. Clair gets in a literary shot, labeling her a “modern-day Lady Macbeth who plotted against her husband’s perceived enemies and backed his corrupt schemes,” and describing (with verbs like “angled” and “unleashed”) her brash ambitions. The Sun-Times’ Kara Spak, employing some potent imagery, has the first lady “stringing obscenities together like holiday lights on the Thompson Center Christmas tree.”

The Sun-Times’ Backtalk Blog, for its part, has formed an impromptu Blago Book Club. “You can love or hate the criminal charges against Gov. Blagojevich,” it states. “But you’ve got to admit, the criminal complaint is a heckuva read…what’s your favorite part? Is it when the governor allegedly considers yanking the state funding to Children’s Memorial? Or when he talks about the possibility of an ambassadorship?”

Perhaps ready to join in the wicked fun, WGN’s John Williams, in an interview with the Tribune’s John McCormick, who was specifically named in the complaint, introduced him by saying, “John McCormick is chuckling right now.”

As a counterpoint to the necessary outrage, that’s probably a good thing.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.