Golden (a book review)

Golden Rod Blagojevich
Only in Illinois…

This one has a lot of local flavor here in the always-interesting state of Illinois, so I wasn’t sure if I should review it or not. But, you know, a true story of rampant political corruption is probably relatable to almost every state in the union, so it should be able to legally cross state lines, right? And I think this one is worth studying.

“Golden” refers directly to a single statement that basically put former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich behind bars for 14 years. His sentence began in 2012 (earlier this year there was even talk from the former governor’s wife about getting Donald Trump to pardon Rod, which didn’t happen). Of course, the story is more complex than one statement. The subtitle of the book is, “How Rod Blagojevich talked himself out of the governor’s office and into prison.” But the story of Rod B. is more than just a look at a corrupt governorship; it’s a tale of a flawed individual, the already legendary corrupt system permeating Illinois, and the perfect storm of power and means.

Chicago reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase start at the beginning, with the early life of a young Rod. Why are his formative years important? The authors don’t specifically say, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. But it’s not a great leap to connect the dots. This part of his life ends up being a fascinating look at someone who never really knows who they are. He doesn’t have the drive for any one thing in particular, and he always comes in second at everything he does. He seems to be going nowhere. But he quickly finds out that people gravitate to his personality. That allows him to succeed in an area he really shouldn’t have: politics.

Some well-timed, if accidental, moves come along, such as meeting and marrying Patricia Mell, the daughter of the powerful and influential Chicago alderman Richard Mell. This gives him an in to a world where he can make waves without much effort thanks to his connection. That, in turn, leads Rod to something that it turns out he is really good at: fund raising. Fund raising for Rod is all about his winning personality, the only thing he excels at. He’s finally found his place. But why raise funds for someone else when you can raise them for yourself and claim the power and prestige, and maybe the riches, that follow?

Perhaps the biggest issue Blagojevich can’t rein in is his need to be in the company of the big dogs. As others around him ascend to bigger jobs in Washington, jealousy seeps through. The story culminates with the brazen attempt to sell Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat in return for a seat at the table. While everyone, Obama included, wanted to exert influence over the senate pick, only Rod openly tried to profit from it.

While it’s a fascinating character study and political cautionary tale, the authors don’t always do it justice. This should have been a pretty tight story, almost a thriller, but it’s clear early on that the two journalists don’t particularly like Rod Blagojevich, so they can’t help but spend time commenting on him personally instead of letting his own actions speak to the reader.

They also retread their own ground in the second half the book. They detail the FBI wiretapping investigation that opened the floodgates into the corrupt governorship, which is good stuff. But when they get into the court trials they just repeat it all, which adds a lot of extra meaningless pages to the book and becomes a little frustrating. It feels like a case of journalists a little too in love with their own work.

Nonetheless, it’s a startling look at how the political machine runs and how easily it can be abused. It’s not limited to Illinois.

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