The chutes and ladders of The Chicago Way
While Obama climbs high, his onetime pal Rezko is slip-slidin' away
The old Antoin "Tony" Rezko, center, leaves the Dirksen Federal Building after making bond. (Tribune photo 2006 / October 19, 2006)
It was just after 9:30 a.m. Tuesday when U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve motioned to the marshal to bring Rezko into the courtroom. A door in the wall opened to a sparse corridor where prisoners often wait.
But there was no Rezko. A half a minute passed. Still no Rezko. Then another half minute, like a magic trick gone bad.
And then came that loud flushing sound.
It was thunderous, the federal waters in epic reverberation, echoing through the courtroom as if by some Hollywood trick of speakers and amplifiers. It was so loud that Obama surely must have heard it in New Hampshire, where he campaigned Tuesday, pretending to be an anti-tax politician.
"Don't be a Grinch. Don't vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays," said Obama the Chicago pol in Manchester, flashing teeth, dazzling them with his wit and charm.
But his old friend Tony Rezko wasn't dazzling anybody, even when he finally appeared in that prisoner's corridor in that courtroom in Chicago. He stood blinking, a skinny ghost of the old Rezko.
The old Rezko was sleek and obvious, as genuine as an alderman's handshake. He was the guy who knew guys and a way around almost anything. He was the wizard who bought that enchanted strip of land that was good for nothing except that it allowed the Obamas to get that dream house they couldn't afford.
The old Rezko had helped Obama take those first few steps along The Chicago Way, a dangerous tango that the president himself once described as "boneheaded" but not criminal. Rezko could samba with Democrats like Gov. Rod Blagojevich one day, then foxtrot with top Illinois Republican bosses like convicted William Cellini the next. They were all part of the Illinois Combine, which knows no party, only appetites.
The new Rezko on Tuesday was thin and meek. He wore government khaki slacks and a green scrub shirt and bright plastic orange clogs on his feet. One look at those Bozo shoes and you knew that Tony Rezko would never dance on The Chicago Way again.
His ankles were shackled. The chain dragged on the carpet between his feet. He shuffled to the defense table.
Rezko's wife sat in the front row. Their three kids seemed just about college age. In a couple hours his longhaired daughter would bury her face in her mother's arms and sob her breath away. His two stone-faced sons would sit quietly, their black eyes deep-set, young hawks angry and wounded. I could see their father in them.
Watching the boys I thought about what Rezko must have been like years ago, at 19, coming out of Syria hungry and broke, with nothing but ambition. It didn't take him long in Chicago to see how things were done, how crooked politics are here, played as politics are played in the Middle East and everywhere else.
Everywhere, that is, but in those embarrassing Obama creation myths spun by myth masters from Chicago's City Hall, all about hope and change and Barack transcending the broken politics of the past.
Rezko was of the old broken politics, which is the same as the new, hopeful politics. Human nature doesn't change and politics has always been about leverage, about stacking government boards and commissions with your allies to direct the spending of billions if not trillions of public dollars. The rest is pixie dust. It is the great game of who gets what, and how much. The larger the government, the greater the prize.
Obama is at the top of that heap. Rezko is at bottom, and before the judge he was contrite. They all seem contrite up there at the end, self-declared sinners seeking compassion from the court and from God.
"I deeply regret my conduct," Rezko said when the lawyers were done. "I take full responsibility for my actions … I come to ask for God's forgiveness and the court's mercy. My family has suffered enough."
Judge St. Eve curtly reminded him that the people of Illinois have suffered too, that they're tired of their politicians being bought and their governments being sold.
"It is time that enough is enough, and that corruption in the Illinois state government has got to stop," she said. And then she dropped it on him: Ten and a half years in prison, with a few years off for time served since his 2008 conviction.
I'm glad I didn't see Rod Blagojevich's face when he heard the news about his good friend Tony. Ten years is just the baseline now, and Blago should get even more. You could just imagine Gov. Dead Meat staring at himself in the mirror, combing and recombing that famous hair, soothing himself, whispering to himself that everything will work out, and then his lip begins quivering, hinting at terrors to come.
Obama will campaign for re-election, and with the media's help, he'll levitate above Chicago politics, unstained, as if his feet never got dirty here.
And Rezko? He'll sit in a federal cell, silenced, waiting, hoping for a presidential pardon, buried beneath The Chicago Way.