Can this be the end of Blago?
A federal jury appeared to end Illinois Gov. Rod "Blago" Blagojevich's long-running reality-TV show when they found him guilty Monday on 17 of 20 federal counts of corruption, including charges that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
After the verdict an uncharacteristically subdued version of the usually motor-mouthed Chicago Democrat faced TV cameras to say he was "disappointed" and "stunned." Indeed, he gave us his best razzle-dazzle and it fizzled.
"Give 'em the old razzle dazzle," sang Billy Flynn, the slick-but-slimeball lawyer played by Richard Gere in the movie version of the musical "Chicago."
The musical is based on a 1926 play of the same name by reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins, who based it on a real trial she covered for the Chicago Tribune. The trial is notable not only as a satire on corruption but also for its downright prophetic take on the impact of media-generated celebrity criminals on the justice system that media cover.
When the musical opened on Broadway in 1975 to a so-so run, its view of media manipulation and lawyer corruption seemed a bit too cynical and cliched, even for a sarcastic old-school Chicago reporter like me. But it returned to much greater success in the 1990s. After the O.J. Simpson trial, it found its audience or, more precisely, the audience found its message to be right on point.
"What if your hinges all are rusting?" sings Flynn. "What if, in fact, you're just disgusting? / Razzle dazzle 'em / And they'll never catch wise."
I could hear that razzle-dazzle song in the background as I watched the indicted Blagojevich take off on his own nationwide razzle-dazzle media tour. While most other indicted officials might shrink away from the public eye, Blago reveled in its unblinking gaze. At every opportunity, he enthusiastically argued his case and tried to polish his image, especially with those listeners who might provide his potential jury pool.
His defense amounted to a Chicago equivalent of "the criminalization of politics," a buzz-phrase made popular by defenders of President George W. Bush's advisors, former House Republican Leader Tom DeLay and other Republicans that Democrats had charged with a "culture of corruption." It is not surprising that Blagojevich would take the same tack in Illinois, where a culture of corruption has long provided material even for Broadway musicals.
His defense seemed to have an impact last year when the jury at his first trial found him guilty of one criminal charge of lying to the FBI but deadlocked on the rest. But the jury in his second trial essentially found a criminalizing of politics -- and pinned it on Blagojevich.
As jurors, withholding their names, took questions from the press, the forewoman, a retired director of music and liturgy at a church, offered a valuable insight. The group understood that behind-the-scenes bargaining is a part of everyday life, she said. "But I think in this instance," she said, "when it's someone representing the people, it crosses the line."
One juror said she found Blagojevich "personable" when he took the stand, and it complicated her deliberations. But another said the panel found his testimony to be "manipulative," which didn't help him. Sometimes the razzle-dazzle works and sometimes it doesn't.
Blago hardly helps Illinois rise above its reputation for corrupt politicians. Blagojevich's Republican predecessor, George Ryan, remains in prison after his conviction on corruption charges in 2006. Maybe they'll be cellmates.
But I take a rosier view. I hope Blago's conviction shows signs that the state's infamous culture of corruption and that of other states can be matched by a promising culture of reform and correction. His desperate defense, cheerfully arguing that it was OK to talk about shakedowns, arm-twisting and kickbacks as long as it was on behalf of "the people," showed a breathtaking cluelessness as to what the public really expects of its public servants -- or should expect.
Even in this era of indicted politicians like Blago and DeLay appearing on TV shows (the latter competed on "Dancing With The Stars" while awaiting his trial and corruption conviction), Blago's jurors showed a refreshing ability to see through the old song and dance.