The book was released on September 8. I had thought there would be an unofficial embargo on the book and that I might have to travel out of state or go through Amazon to get a copy. fortunately, though, the library had copies, and I was able to check one out less than two weeks after the release.
Prior to the release, the book had been described as not only a memoir to the former governor's days in office, but maybe as a future text for political courses. It is illuminating, and because the author has had experience with politics at the state and national levels, I'm going to accept much of what is said in the book as that - his experience.
There are parts of the book that may come off to a reader as "Why me? Why did I get into this predicament?" But Blagojevich acknowledges his choice to do so, and he seemingly accepts the consequences of his actions. But he stresses that the charges against him are wrong, and that he is eager for the opportunity to clear his name. The only charge mentioned against him regards the U.S. Senate seat held by Barack Obama. Blagojevich acknowledges that he did attempt to make a deal to fill the seat, but that the deal, if accepted and enacted, would had benefitted the people of Illinois - created jobs, provided health coverage to more people among them.
He mentions some of the key players - Obama, Rahm Emanuel (who had been friendly and receptive to many of the governor's proposals and policies), Mike Madigan (the powerful state representative who currently is House Speaker and nemesis to the governor), Madigan's daughter Lisa (the current state attorney general and protege of her father), Pat Quinn (the current governor who was lieutenant governor under Blagojevich) - and describes a seemingly elaborate scheme (that has deemed him "delusional" by Madigan) to get him out of office following his arrest. It may be fantastical to the average reader (and perhaps this is the impression the political insiders want the reader to have), but I know and have seen enough of Illinois politics to not be so surprised.
He then goes on to talk about his family - growing up in a loving home headed by a Serbian immigrant who believed deeply in the American Dream. He recalls fondly Saturday evenings where he and his brother Rob (who would be indicted with him as his fundraiser, and who recently asserted his innocence in the Chicago Sun-Times) would go with their father to pick up their mother from a part-time job at a grocery store and waiting at an adjacent bar for her to finish work. When he won his first election, his mother admonished him to never "take a bribe". He describes his wife Patti as loving and supportive, determined to make sure their daughters had a normal childhood. When it comes to his young daughters, he's not afraid of showing a father's pride. After his arrest, an interview with a former aide revealed a governor who may had been temperamental toward his staff, but a "good dad" to his daughters. He and his wife based their controversial decision not to live in the governor's mansion in Springfield on their daughters' well-being (he recalls three congressional colleagues who lost children to suicide), though they had spent time in the mansion when in Springfield.
He describes his tenuous relationship with his in-laws. His mother-in-law (who passed away in 2007) was supportive of her family but troubled by her marriage. His sister-in-law (a state representative herself) is close to the family and steadfast in her support of the former governor. His father-in-law, Chicago alderman Richard Mell, gave him his start in politics but became bitterly disappointed when his son-in-law would not, citing ethics, help him benefit personally from state deals. A decision by Blagojevich to close a dumping ground Mell had a vested interest because of EPA violations, touched off a family feud that still continues and may have sparked the investigations that would ultimately lead to Blagojevich's downfall.
He describes his early political career as a state representative. He was drafted to run by his father-in-law when the candidate he was supporting moved to a neighboring district to run. He asked what control he would have over the issues he presented to voters and Mell flatly stated "I don't give a fuck about that." With the competition a person supported by then-congressman Dan Rostenkowski, Blagojevich was an underdog. But by campaigning the old-fashioned way of knocking on doors, shaking hands with people, and campaigning in gentrifying neighborhoods, he would win with 61% of the vote. (Reviewer's note: I met him not long after his first election, and based on what he said, our paths may had crossed during his campaign.) He would serve two terms in the state house.
He runs for Congress and wins, defeating a fellow state rep with national backing. His most famous accomplishment was accompanying Jesse Jackson to the former Yugoslavia to win the release of three U.S. soldiers held by Slobodan Milosevic. His knowledge of the Serbian language and culture was a tremendous asset.
He feels he can do more, and he runs for Illinois governor in 2001. He places third in a three-way race, until he campaigns downstate. He wins the downstate vote, putting him barely over the top in the primary while his challengers divide the Chicago-area vote.
As governor, he credits himself with being the first to provide healthcare for children (Ted Kennedy's fight for that is not mentioned in the book.) as well as the first to provide mammograms for women who cannot afford them. He also touts other accomplishments, like free rides for senior citizens, raising the state minimum wage and going to Canada to win a deal to provide affordable prescription drugs to seniors. His critics would decry these moves as costly to the taxpayers.
But he describes plots against him worthy of Shakespeare. State leaders holding up legislation important to him. His father-in-law conspiring against him. And the Senate seat deal that would lead to his arrest and downfall.
He decides to appoint Lisa Madigan to the U.S. Senate if her father would run legislation through creating jobs and making healthcare accessible to more Illinois citizens. Advisers and U.S. Senate leaders approve, since Lisa Madigan would be a more worthy candidate in 2010 and raise funds - qualifications for a successful political career. But before he could approach the Madigans with the deal, he gets arrested.
Since he's already unpopular with the legislature, leaders are already calling for his resignation. He won't resign, because he's committed to finishing his term. Somebody floats a deal - Blagojevich steps aside, he can receive his salary, and Quinn can succeed him and appoint a person to fill the vacancy - Lisa Madigan. Blagojevich refuses and does appoint someone - Roland Burris. The rest, they say, is history.
There are two types of politicians - the ones that quietly go along to get along, and the barnstormers - the ones that want to make their mark in the world. The former won't make waves, may quietly climb the ladder and retire with a comfortable pension. The latter will come out strong, may ruffle some feathers, but try to get the job done and will be long remembered after she or he is gone. Their stay is brief before they move on with the next challenge. There are three such barnstormers that come to mind - John Kennedy, Barack Obama and Rod Blagojevich. All three have ruffled their share of feathers, but get a lot done and will long be remembered no matter what happens. The former - the Madigans, Pat Quinn (who was a barnstormer but conformed, much to the disappointment of Illinoisans and editorial writers), Roland Burris - may get a mention in history books but little more. Burris, though, already has a tombstone with his resume on it. When you read this book, think of that.
If you want to learn more about the inner workings of Illinois politics, this book is a good tool. It did shed some insight into what Blagojevich thought while he went through the period following his arrest he called the "Dark Ages" until his removal from office. But I was hoping for more - how did he cope when he got up the morning after he was removed from office, everyday life outside the fishbowl, how he's preparing to face the inevitable trial, and his family for life if he's convicted. This will probably be another book, and maybe one his wife can write since he would not be able to profit if he's convicted.
Otherwise, his voice is strong throughout the book (and it was his voice that wrote the book, as he used his daughter's computer with voice-recognizable software to write most of it). It's genuine, funny in some places and compelling as he is in person. I'd recommend it.
- On the beat:Chicago
- Basic Instinct: curious
- In My Head:Tool - Schism