Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda at Politico

Reporters reach to tie Obama administration to Blagojevich business

Assuming perhaps that we’d all been missing the sight of Lego-haired former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich—or at least missing out on his juicy trial, distracted as we are by midterms and oil disasters and whatnot—Politico led yesterday with a story titled “Rod Blagojevich trial could singe White House.”

The key word here is “could.”

Reporters Jonathan Allen and Glenn Thrush weave a fascinating insider-y story around Blagojevich’s ongoing federal corruption trial and its worrying implications for former Chicago Democratic machinists now turning cogs in the White House: Jarrett, Emanuel, and Obama himself.

Except, so far, there seems to be nothing to worry about.

If Allen and Thrush’s 1,631 words seem to amount to little, that’s because they do. After a hooky and ominous lede—“It’s the trial the White House hopes you won’t watch”—the authors admit a kind of defeat in the third paragraph.

The top White House officials—President Barack Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett—haven’t been too badly bruised so far, by Chicago standards at least, even as federal prosecutors air wiretaps of Blagojevich’s ugliest private conversations about them.

The piece quickly becomes an exploration of what could be coming for D.C.’s famous Chicagoans as the tapes play on. Defense lawyers could call Emanuel and Jarrett to the stand. The trial could “go national” if they do. Emanuel’s chances for mayor could be damaged. Or, “his willingness to deal with the disgraced governor to free up cash for his constituents couldactually enhance his local reputation.” [our emphasis] The conjectures come from sources including “one aide to a top Illinois official,” a “close Obama ally,” an “Illinois Democrat,” and “one veteran Chicago political insider.”

There is a real story amongst the soothsaying. Prosecutors have alleged that fundraisers promised $1 million to Blagojevich in exchange for putting Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in Obama’s still-warm Senate seat. But the details of that accusation, revealed in the trial, don’t come into the Politico story until the final paragraphs. After the big three stars have moved off the stage. “Right now, it’s Jackson who is in the spotlight,” write Allen and Thrush. You wouldn’t know that from Politico’s headline, images, or lede, which focus on eyeball-grabbing, hopeful, but ultimately tenuous links to the president.

Said one aide to a top Illinois elected official: “People may be breathing easier, ‘cause there’s been no major revelations really connecting Obama or Rahm to this guy. But you never know what the long-term damage will be. The Obama people may be playing it cool, but trust me, they’re plenty worried.”

We don’t know who you are, but sure, we’ll trust you. Why not?

So far, there is no Blag-Obama scandal, and pumping up the Obama angle seems to be a hit-hunting ploy, a way of drawing cheap attention to a trial we tired of before it began. And Allen and Thrush seem to confirm as much in the piece.

Still, nothing in the trial has captured Washington’s attention yet—not even a new revelation about the president’s role in the Senate seat spectacle or the prospect that defense lawyers could call Emanuel and Jarrett to the stand when it is their turn to grill witnesses.

Quite simply, Blago has had trouble breaking through in the summer of BP, Elena Kagan and Gen. Stan McChrystal. Some chalk it up to the governor himself—whose F-bombs, hair helmet and stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” make him seem more like a reckless and cartoonish figure than the menacing double-dealer portrayed by prosecutors, charged with trying to sell the president’s Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Still, maybe we’re wrong. Maybe Allen and Thrush are forecasting something that could in fact set the White House alight, let alone singe it, as the trial goes forth. They’re expert political reporters with excellent contacts (Allen left Politico at one stage to become a Democratic political operative himself but eventually returned) and have obviously spoken to the right people (whoever they are).

Politico might not be able to wait and see, but we will.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.