The telephone calls played in the corruption trial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — freely available for listening online — are more entertaining than anything on TV this summer.
Editor's note: The PDF links in this column point to uncensored government transcripts of Blagojevich wiretaps. Needless to say, they contain explicit language.
In the early afternoon of Nov. 4, 2008, Americans were going to the polls to choose the next president of the United States. We were weighing whether to vote for a bright young lawyer who could make history as the first African-American president, or a respected war hero with a long career in public service who still carries the scars of years spent in a North Vietnamese prison.
In that historic moment, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich had a lot on his mind, too.
“Now is the time for me to put my (expletive) children and my wife first, for a change,” Blagojevich said in a Nov. 4, 2008, conversation with deputy governor Robert Greenlee (PDF). He was complaining that Barack Obama’s likely victory would block his own political advancement.
It’s one of dozens of telephone conversations that have been made public in Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial, which is in its sixth week in Chicago. They’re all available on the website of the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and they’re far more entertaining than anything on TV this summer.
On that Election Day call, Blagojevich continued listing his grievances: “I (expletive) busted my ass and (expletive) people off and gave your grandmother a free (expletive) ride on a bus. OK? I gave your (expletive) baby a chance to have health care. I fought every one of those (expletive), including every special interest out there, who can make my life easier and better, because they wanna raise taxes on you and I won’t. I, I fight them and keep them from doing it.
“And what do I get for that? Only 13 percent of you all out there think I’m doing a good job. So (expletive) all of you.”
About a month later, FBI agents would arrest Blagojevich at his Chicago home. It didn’t take long for our governor to become a national punch line.
“Saturday Night Live” landed a few of the heaviest blows, channeling the profanity-laced tirades that had been made public at the press conference announcing the arrest.
“SNL” actor Jason Sudeikis had the look down cold — he’d always appear in a black tracksuit, sporting a huge mop of hair. But at the time, I thought his portrayal was off.
“It seems to me that ‘SNL’ has gone after the low-hanging fruit while ignoring the more interesting aspects of the governor’s quirky personality,” I wrote in a column in January 2009, complaining that Sudeikis’ character was “largely a profane brute.”
But now, listening to the dozens of conversations recorded by FBI wiretaps and played at the governor’s trial, it’s hard to see Blagojevich as anything but a venal thug.
So to Jason Sudeikis and the writing staff of “SNL”: I’m sorry. You were right; I was wrong.
‘Time is passing me by’
Eighteen months later, now that the trial is finally under way, the phrase “(bleeping) golden” — how Blagojevich described his power to name Obama’s successor in the Senate — is played out. It’s lost all power to shock.
But it turns out there’s more. Much, much more.
“I don’t wanna be governor for the next two years. I wanna get going,” Blagojevich said on a Nov. 10, 2008, conference call with advisers (PDF). “This has been two (expletive) (expletive) years where I’m doing the best I can trying to get through a brick wall and find ways around stuff, but it’s like just (expletive) my family and time is passing me by and I’m stuck, it’s no good. It’s no good. I gotta get moving.
“The whole world’s passing me by and I’m stuck in this (expletive) job as governor now.”
Blagojevich even engages in speculation about what he might have done to block the rise of Obama — Blagojevich saw Obama’s rise as stifling his own chances for advancement.
“I mean you got this historic, (expletive) demi-god. He’s a demi-god now. At least for now,” Blagojevich told former top aide Doug Scofield on Nov. 5, 2008 (PDF).
Blagojevich wonders what he could have done differently: hired Obama adviser David Axelrod the day after he was elected governor? Somehow stopped Obama from speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention?
Having covered Blagojevich up close for three years — or at least as close as a member of the Statehouse press corps gets, which is not very — I had a few ideas about what the man was really like. But I didn’t imagine anything like the self-aggrandizing goofball on the audio recordings at the trial.
‘Don’t talk on the (expletive) phone’
Listening to this treasure trove, I’m also compelled to wonder if the governor has ever seen a mob movie or TV show.
In Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas,” for example, the narrator tells us that Paulie, the don, hated phones: “He wouldn’t have one in his house. He used to get all his calls second-hand, then you’d have to call the people back from an outside phone. There were guys that’s all they did, all day long, is take care of Paulie’s phone calls.”
The message is driven home late in the film, when one of the principal characters has been arrested and seeks help from another mobster named Jimmy.
Sitting in a diner, Jimmy holds up a sheaf of papers and says, “I been telling you your whole life, don’t talk on the (expletive) phone, right? Now you understand?”
That seems like a lesson Blagojevich would have understood. But then we’d never hear gems like this, from that same conversation with Doug Scofield: “I mean, something’s really (expletive) up in my head, Doug.
“I mean, I could ... end up still maybe delivering pizzas somewhere. Maybe that’s where my destiny is, right?”
Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587 or email@example.com.