© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Can science understand Blagojevich's brain?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2008 - Were I able to draw cartoons like Gary Larson did in “The Far Side,” I’d create a variation on one of his favorite themes: A group of scientists hovers over a jar, poking, probing, looking quizzical, if not downright baffled. The label on the jar reads “Blagojevich’s brain.” No caption, regrettably enough, necessary.

Rod Blagojevich seldom gets compared to Albert Einstein - whose brain was the subject of (legitimate) curiosity and scrutiny. But the Illinois governor’s gray matter might prove every bit as inscrutable.

“He appears to be a man who never listens to anybody else,” says a veteran Springfield newsman who has chronicled the Illinois governor’s actions since he was sworn in in January 2003. “It appears that he can think only about himself.”

That’s a small part of the reason it’s so difficult to predict what the embattled, not to mention arrested, governor will do next. Or how – and just how quickly - the Illinois legislature and/or Supreme Court will move to take action against him.

It is hyperbolic but not out of character to envision Blagojevich announcing tomorrow that he has a brand new program for all Illinoisans.

“Today I am announcing a $1,000-a-person giveaway – my super-duper holiday bonus for every hard-working, taxpaying man and woman and even child in Illinois,” the governor might say. “All you have to do is stop by my office to pick up your check.”

Meanwhile, his aides, the few who remain, will be left scrambling to figure out precisely from where those thousands of thousands are to come.

Or Gov. Blagojevich might announce that because his beloved Chicago Cubs (so far) have failed to sign San Diego pitcher Jake Peavy that he is slotting HIMSELF into the Cubs’ projecting staff.

“And,” he might well say, “I’m going ahead of Zambrano and certainly Marquis in the rotation.”

The governor has been nearly that far detached from the reality recognized by most of the rest of us, and not just since Dec. 9 when he was arrested by federal agents on corruption charges. Since when? Oh, since about when nearly anybody started paying close attention to him.

Speaking of the Chicago Cubs, Blagojevich has been known to interrupt himself while talking about a serious topic with Cubs’ lineup trivia or to break out in song at odd times, like at the Illinois State Fair. He might do an impromptu Elvis imitation, as if there aren’t enough impersonators anyway. (He has said his two heroes are Elvis and - go figure - Richard Nixon.)

We asked another veteran Springfield news reporter, quick, what has struck you as, um, quirky about our governor?

“I’ve always thought it odd that the governor comes into the (state) Capitol through the back entrance, back where the garbage cans are,” he said. (Footnote: Ducking the media, the governor leaves the same way.)

Although it somehow used to work for Ronald Reagan, Blagojevich is prone to repeating the same anecdotal, sometimes apocryphal stories such as his ice-breaking "joke" about riding in his motorcade and being mistaken for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley by a little girl. And even after Blagojevich’s aides admitted the story was not true, the governor kept telling it anyway.

Blagojevich has a streak of tardiness in his DNA, sometimes holding up both regular people and VIPs at special events. Were an event scheduled for, say, 9 a.m., office pools would appear the night before speculating on the time the governor actually would burst into the room.

Early in his tenure, Springfieldians, proud that the state Capitol and the Executive Mansion are right here and not in The Loop, were offended that Blagojevich shunned our city in favor of living in Chicago (“to kiss my baby”). Over time, though, local citizens began to appreciate the snub. A sighting – the governor jogging in Washington Park – rather than actually governing from the Capitol – became a perversely entertaining local trivia note.

Pages have been written – and will continue to be – on Blagojevich’s bodacious blunders:

  • Stillborn programs involving the gross receipts tax and “free” transportation for the elderly;
  • his venal attack on the State Board of Education;
  • the much ballyhooed selling (well, make that leasing) of the state lottery;
  • broken promises over schools to have been built;
  • the $2.6 million in flu vaccine, ordered by the governor, that arrived in the U.S. expired, just as the feds said it would, and ultimately rejected by Pakistan.

With characteristic bluster, Blagojevich routinely has announced programs and initiatives that never moved an inch off the launch pad. No announcement would be complete without his pandering mantra of “the hard-working people of Illinois.” Today there are office pools, all right, but of a different kind. The governor, with characteristic brass, has been crowing that he’s back hard at work, signing the occasional bill here and there.
Call us cynical, but speculation about what the gov really is doing all day includes: Downloading songs by The King; ordering Blackhawks tickets; stocking up on hair brushes; floating the state lottery on eBay?

Ask a dozen people who have been in and or around the governor: “What’s wrong with this guy?” And you are likely to get a dozen different answers:

  • “Attention deficit disorder.”
  • “Desperate to be the golden boy of his immigrant parents.”
  • “A classic have-not who longs to be a have.”
  • “When he married Chicago Ald. Richard Mell’s daughter (Patti) that was his meal ticket.”
  • “I always thought he’d be indicted, but I never knew he swore that much.”
  • “There’s that sense of entitlement that comes from being a Chicago pol.”

The phrases “delusional” and “alternate reality” come up as if the governor were the star of a Michael Crichton novel.
You’ve covered him for years, I asked one seasoned reporter, what makes him tick? “It’s difficult,” he said, “because he acts so irrationally. Nobody thinks exactly the way he does.”

Meanwhile, the second panel of my own cartoon shows the scientists shaking the brain-encased jar, scrutinizing it to no particular avail.

“I just don’t get it,” says scientist one

“Me neither,” says scientist two.

“Let’s not, though,” they say in unison, “under any circumstances, send this thing over to Cloning.” 

Paul Povse is a freelance journalist based in Springfield, Ill.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.