I’m fascinated by the governor’s story. He’s been in view here far longer than President-Elect Obama, to be honest, and his own presidential aspirations have never been far below the surface. Senator John McCain, the “maverick” reformer cum failed presidential candidate, told David Letterman that Governor Blagojevich once told him that he considered himself a reformer like McCain, thanking him for being a political role model. McCain and Letterman shared a laugh over those comments, absurd as they sound alongside transcripts of foul-mouthed shakedowns from the governor’s office.
The conversation about Governor Blagojevich has shifted, at least temporarily, to the question of his mental health. People think he must have been crazy to conduct so brazen a campaign as the one to sell a senate seat and force the firing of critical journalists. The mental health community, however, is stopping short of calling the governor psychotic; instead, they’re calling him a narcissist.
Dr. Daniela Schreirer is a forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and she does not see any sign of mental illness in the public Blagojevich, but believes he does have sociopathic traits.
"We're just talking about traits. We're not talking about full-blown diagnosis. But certainly, there's the same sense of entitlement, the same sense of thinking I am superior. I can do whatever I want. I am not going to be caught," Schreirer said.
Blagojevich was, at one time, a rising star. He achieved office initially by being charming and self-deprecating; an advertising campaign consisted of everyday Illinoisans struggling to pronounce his last name but admiring his qualifications and energy. He eventually became a U.S. Representative and made a name for himself by helping to negotiate the release of three American soldiers, who were being detained in Yugoslavia under dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Three years later he was running for governor, but the presidency was on his mind. In an ad that cemented his reputation in my mind as a twerp, he had grade-school students quiz him about American presidents: “Sixteenth president?” “Abraham Lincoln! . . .” Ostensibly about his commitment to education, the ad told me that he viewed the governorship as a stepping stone to his true destiny as president of the United States. And yet he spoke clearly, candidly and winsomely with interviewers, among other things stating with enthusiasm that he and his family “love Jesus.” This at the time was one of the most plainspoken, unambiguous comments on personal faith I'd heard from a candidate who wasn't in the pocket of the religious right. So while I didn’t vote for him (remember, I thought he was a twerp), I had hopes that his tenure as governor would be marked by policies that reflected his love for Jesus—just and compassionate programs, ethical policies and practices.
Blagojevich became governor in what might be considered the easiest campaign ever: the current Republican governor, George Ryan, was on notice that he’d be facing trial after his term ended, and the Republican candidate to replace him shared the same last name: Jim Ryan, no relation. For the second time in his career, Blagojevich’s last name carried him into office. Four years later the Illinois Republican party still couldn’t get its act together; State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was the only Republican holding statewide office, and when she ran against the governor on the argument that he had failed both to manage the state’s economy and to fight corruption, one video of her dancing with former Governor Ryan put an end to her chances to unseat Blagojevich. He made Elvis jokes about being “All Shook Up” over his victory and settled into his second term.
The governor’s second term has been characterized mainly by gridlock. It seems that he’s systematically alienated everyone in state government, such that the legislature and the Chicago Transit Authority, among other institutions, faced near-implosion while he sat in the bleachers enjoying hockey games. Some tried to call a constitutional convention for the express purpose of making it legal to recall his position; others spoke explicitly and frequently about his grandstanding and bullheadedness.
Barack Obama, it’s presumed, frustrated Blagojevich’s career plans by taking the national spotlight in 2004's Democratic National Convention and launching an ultimately successful presidential campaign in 2007. This was to be Blagojevich’s year, if you believe the scuttlebutt, but public and peer opinion had turned against him, so that by election day 2008 he had, among his liabilities, a federal investigation into his office and a devastatingly negative reputation among his constituents, and as almost his only asset, a recently vacated senate seat.
I feel bad for Rod Blagojevich. That’s a relatively new feeling for me; I’ve typically dismissed him as a mere worshiper of “the characteristically American bitch goddess of Success,” as Mark Stritcherz put it in America magazine. But Blagojevich is merely the most recent and most pronounced example of the pervasive streak of narcissism, with its attendant sense of entitlement and invulnerability, that runs through our culture and, I think, every human heart.
Blagojevich is, in that respect, this year’s Gary Hart, who dared reporters to follow him in their suspicions of his infidelity, and who resigned his own presidential campaign when they did exactly that and caught him in an affair. Blagojevich is this year’s Richard Nixon, who publicly told onlookers “I am not a crook” but who privately and obscenely violated the law on tape. He’s this year’s Ananias, who made a grand public gesture in donating his wealth to the early church but who was revealed to be just another poser with a wicked heart. He's this year’s Cain, who killed his brother and then stared down God with a brazen dismissal of the accusation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He's this year's me, and all the mes here in Me-Ville.
Stritcherz goes on to lament the Me-Ville we find ourselves in, a world effectively incapable of policing itself or aspiring to self-sacrifice toward the greater good, by describing the world we've fallen short of:
In a morally and spiritually robust society, institutions identify such characters as rascals and discipline them accordingly; they can separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
I paraphrase the apostle Paul: Who will rescue us from this city of death? Thanks be to God who, if we dare follow, will deliver us from Me-Ville, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.