The question isn’t who, or what, but why. Why is Rod Blagojevich?
Why does our most recent disgraced ex-governor continue to make improbably interesting television, as evidenced by Hulu’s four-part documentary “Being Blago”?
Why does the man, who turns 65 next month, remain doggedly popular with many Illinois and national voters? Is it pity? Empathy? Is it because they can’t actually vote for him, since he has long been barred from running for public office (or practicing law)?
So many whys.
For now, the “two-bit Elvis impersonator” (his own assessment of his Elvis routines), whose 14-year prison sentence for that famous, ruinous “f------ golden” line was commuted in 2020 by then- President Trump, keeps assembling the pieces of his freedom in ways he can believe in. Or try.
Judging from “Being Blago,” which runs about two and a half hours, the man remains liked by many, partly because he’s so transparent in his needs. He tells himself and the world he’s through with politics, though always leaving a widow or a door open. Even though he knows his wife, Patti, will leave him (she says so, plainly, on camera) if he reenters that sphere.
He needs, as he says, “a second act.” He has a persecution complex, from his perspective largely if not wholly justified, since he has the public downfall and the rap sheet to prove it.
He is, as former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer says in “Being Blago,” “the personification of a victim card.” Blagojevich has yet to learn to say deal me out, because he still wants in.
The Hulu series may not unearth new truths about this Illinois political saga. But the recap works cogently and compellingly as recent history. And as a homey sort of rehearsal for whatever this second act of his is at the moment.
There’s lots of new interview footage with Rod, in his Ravenswood Manor home, or on the patio, or on a bench in Lincoln Park. More sparingly and effectively, we also hear from Patti (on a bench in Horner Park). In Episode 4, the long-married couple sit down together, outside their home, with Patti reminding Rod that he “guilt-tripped (her) into doing” this sit-down for the Hulu series. She’s serious but smiling. They laugh about it.
At one point in “Being Blago” Rod jokes that Patti’s thinking of writing a book called “Thanks, President Trump. Thanks for Nothing.”
There’s value, I think, in examining the endurance and the limits in any marriage. This one’s still intact. “You just don’t cut and run in bad times,” Patti says at one point.
At another point, Rod — no technological wizard — is seen coping with the challenges (new to him, in his post-prison life) of paying at the pump at the Shell station at Montrose and Western, and calling Patti for help with the debit card.
As always, there’s clear and juicy interest in Blagojevich’s particular entry into and rise in Illinois politics, which Rod always saw as a natural bridge to the White House. Patti’s father, the powerful longtime 33rd Ward Ald. Richard Mell, wanted a guy he could trust in the role of 33rd District state representative. That worked out, and then so did Blagojevich’s regional political career. But both Rod and Patti ( Dick Mell declined participation in the Hulu doc) confirm how frosty and mutually resentful Blagojevich’s relationship with his political sponsor father-in-law became.
“Being Blago” is codirected, executive produced, and coedited by Justin Allen and Matt Knutson, who fall prey to a couple of dubious ideas, notably a glib “Big Short” primer (that damn movie has so much to answer for in the docu-realm) on the Chicago Democratic political machine. This being a Disney/ ABC product, the overwhelming media presence in terms of on-camera sourcing and interviews belongs to ABC-Ch. 7 and longtime investigative reporter Chuck Goudie, among many others. This isn’t a drawback, but it narrows the scope of the opinions.
We see Rod embarking on his jogs, in his Javier Báez Cubs jersey, running a few miles because “you have to put yourself through the pain.” We watch, with increasingly wide eyes, as Rod records one of his birthday “cameo” video messages (his fee: $80 per greeting), which is supposed to be eight, maybe 10 seconds. His clocks in at several minutes, allowing him to re-litigate his innocence.
In one standout, sustained moment in “Being Blago,” the restless salesmanship falls away. On the bench in Lincoln Park, he recalls the morning he left for prison. He’d already instructed himself, and his family: no tears. He left, he recalls, “trying to be cheerful.”
As he recounts the memory, the emotional misguidedness of that exit strategy crumbles, imperceptibly. His voice grows quieter, slower. It’s as if he’s realizing on-camera, in his natural habitat, that old Randy Newman song title: “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.”
I lived catty-corner and three houses down Richmond Street from the Blagojevich house for a decade or so. I met the man one time, in 2004. My son and I were at the playground by the Francisco Brown Line stop. Rod was there, campaigning unofficially even though he was already governor. “Good luck in kindergarten,” he wrote on an autograph, unrequested but accepted.
His regular running route down Sunnyside Avenue was a comically attention-getting affair: Rod, flanked by a considerable security detail, also jogging, followed by security in an SUV. That gazelle-like stride, the socks pulled up higher than socks were meant to go — unmistakable. When the comeuppance came, the reporters and news trucks and hovering helicopters never seemed to leave.
Last year’s Netflix docuseries “Trial by Media” did a pretty good job dealing with the Blagojevich riddle in the episode “Blago!” But the best of the new interview footage in “Being Blago,” some of it filmed just three months ago, adds valuable nuance to a second act in some kind of progress.
For the record: In the documentary Blagojevich acknowledges that in a good year, he makes $150,000 or more doing those celebrity video greetings for $80 a pop.
That’s not much less than he made as governor.
“Being Blago” is streaming on Hulu.