As a candidate and as governor, Rod Blagojevich loved to toss around the word "corrupt" as he heaped scorn on the business-as-usual nature of Illinois politics. So his reaction to the 2006 conviction of his predecessor, George Ryan, was totally in character.
"Today's verdict proves that no one is above the law," Blagojevich declared at the time. "And just as important, it proves that government is supposed to exist for the good of the people, not the other way around, and certainly not for the personal enrichment of those who hold public office."
In a profound way, Illinois' only impeached governor has now been forced to eat those sentiments, which federal prosecutors implored jurors to recall before they voted last week to find Blagojevich guilty of sweeping corruption of his own.
Blagojevich has long been a blur of contradictions whose deeds belied his words with stunning regularity.
As a state lawmaker and then congressman, he became known for little else than his advocacy of strong gun controls. But that reputation nearly cost him the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002, so once in office and able to act on his passion, he instead avoided it like a poisonous snake.
As governor, he vocally opposed any general tax hikes and laid claim to being a frugal steward of the public purse. In reality, the state budget deficit more than doubled under Blagojevich's watch, while he allowed his personal finances to become a shambles as well.
Blagojevich fancied himself a model of ethical probity, vowing at his first inaugural to clean up state government and declaring mission accomplished at his second swearing-in.
Yet prosecutors contended Blagojevich conspired from the first to profit from his official powers, and he was convicted at his first trial last summer of trying to mislead the FBI about the intersection of political fundraising and official action under his watch.
Blagojevich was hardly the first Illinois leader gone bad, but the tale of his stunning fall departs sharply from those of crooked past governors such as Ryan or Otto Kerner, insiders who succumbed to greed.
Both politically and personally, Blagojevich was a misfit done in by profound insecurities and shortcomings.
It clearly wasn't his intention, but Blagojevich filled in the edges of that portrait as he took the witness stand late last month to testify at his corruption retrial.
The child of working-class immigrants, Blagojevich grew up modestly on the Northwest Side in the shadow of his more athletic older brother, Robert, whose hopes of playing baseball at a Florida university were thwarted by injury.
The future governor, on the other hand, was a so-so student who flunked drafting, flopped at Little League and dreamed of playing pro basketball but couldn't make it as a starter on teams at two city high schools. He followed his brother to college in Florida but transferred to Northwestern University, where he felt like an outsider among classmates who largely had more money and social advantages.
He nearly washed out of law school in California but leveraged connections after graduation to land a job at the Cook County state's attorney's office. During his trial, Blagojevich played up his experience as a prosecutor, but what he didn't say was that most of it was spent in traffic court at the bottom rung of government law.
What Blagojevich was possessed of was a glib tongue and an ability to charm, a skill set made for politics. But his big break hardly fits with Blagojevich's up-from-the-bootstraps self-image: in essence, he married the boss's daughter.
Ald. Richard Mell, 33rd, not only made Blagojevich's political career, but played a critical role in breaking it as well. Blagojevich chafed under his dependence on Mell, eventually leading to an ugly split that piqued the interest of investigators when Mell charged that a price tag had been hung on state posts by a key Blagojevich insider.
Blagojevich had begun doing political odd jobs for Mell after he met the alderman's daughter, Patti, at a 1988 political fundraiser.
"If her dad liked me, I had a better shot with Patti," Blagojevich explained during his testimony.
Mell used his considerable power as a Democratic ward committeeman to arrange the election of his son-in-law first to the Illinois House, then the U.S. House.
In Springfield and in Washington, Blagojevich left virtually no tracks. He gained a reputation among colleagues as an amiable "mushroom," political parlance for a backbench legislator content to be kept in the dark and fed manure by his leadership.
The fire that characterized Blagojevich's volatile years as governor didn't publicly emerge until he ran for the post, a 2002 campaign again aided greatly by Mell, who made sure the telegenic Blagojevich was awash in campaign cash.
That allowed Blagojevich to command the airwaves, a critical component of modern elections, but what was less clear was why someone who had shown little past political moxie suddenly wanted to grab for the brass ring.
David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's political consultant, had a leading role in Blagojevich's first campaign for Congress in 1996 but turned down an approach to oversee the bid for governor. Blagojevich couldn't articulate why he was running, Axelrod recalled for a Chicago business group last spring. "You ought to know why you're doing it, and it can't just be that it's cool to be governor," Axelrod said.
Blagojevich went a different, and ultimately fateful, direction for help, importing sports agent buddy Alonzo "Lon" Monk to help run the campaign and increasingly relying on developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko and roofing contractor Christopher Kelly to raise money. The three became key figures in scandals that caught the attention of government agents and ultimately engulfed Blagojevich.
Blagojevich won easily in 2002, but he never really stopped campaigning. His fundraising operation remained in high gear, and as an administrator, he seemed most comfortable when championing headline-grabbing gimmicks of limited consequence and sometimes of questionable legality.
One was an attempt to fashion what he claimed would have been the nation's first ever ban on the sale of violent video games to minors. It never went anywhere in Illinois, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar California ban on the same day of Blagojevich's conviction last week.
His signature issue became broader access to health care and cheap drugs, and he stressed this at his retrial. But he first took it up not out of long-standing advocacy but as a political favor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who at the time served in Congress and was pushing those concerns.
Legislator Blagojevich was defined by a go-along, get-along attitude, but Gov. Blagojevich went for the jugular first. He once underscored a bid to take control of the state school board by ripping it as a "Soviet-style bureaucracy."
He seemed to go out of his way to pick fights, most notably with the leader of his own Democratic party, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, and with an array of other Democrats as well. Secretary of State Jesse White once publicly declared that Blagojevich's word was not to be trusted, and legislators grew so wary of dealing with him that they took the unprecedented step of requiring the governor to put promises in writing.
So many Democrats and Republicans in Springfield felt alienated by Blagojevich that virtually none of them rose to his defense in the wake of his 2008 arrest.
Polls showed that voters, too, had wearied of him, feeding palpable resentment and frustration in Blagojevich that was vividly captured on a government wiretap as he schemed to craft an exit strategy with his power as governor to fill the U.S. Senate seat Obama vacated after winning the presidency.
"I (expletive) busted my ass and pissed people off and gave your grandmother a free (expletive) ride on a bus. OK?" Blagojevich complained. "I gave your (expletive) baby a chance to have health care. 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."
Tribune reporter Ray Long contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun