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Prisoner of pride

Politics | Rod Blagojevich looks badly beaten, but is he yet broken?

Issue: "News of the Year," Dec. 27, 2008

Charles Colson says he knows how disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich feels. Two days after federal officials arrested Blagojevich for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called "a corruption crime spree," Colson reflected on his own corruption-related fall during the Watergate scandal nearly 35 years ago.

Colson, a former aide to President Nixon who later founded the Christian ministry Prison Fellowship, spent seven months in prison, and he credits that experience with saving his life. If a jury eventually convicts Blagojevich and sends him to jail, Colson hopes he'll find something similar: "He's going to have to reach rock bottom-just as I did-before he will be able to escape his own prison of pride, self-delusion, and self-righteousness," Colson wrote in a column for CNN.

A week after authorities arrested Blagojevich and charged him with conspiring to sell President-elect Barack Obama's now-vacant senate seat, the Democratic governor wasn't showing signs of breaking. Despite profanity-laden transcripts of telephone conversations featuring Blagojevich brazenly telling associates he wanted money for the senate seat he's empowered to fill by state law, the governor denied wrongdoing and refused to resign his post. Illinois lawmakers started impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich on Dec. 15, while the governor continued to report to his office and assemble a legal team to fight the charges.

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The charges include allegations that Blagojevich sought bribes for Obama's senate seat, as well as bribes for state jobs and contracts. Authorities say the court-ordered wire taps also revealed Blagojevich sought the firings of Chicago Tribune editorial writers who were critical of him, and that he threatened to withhold state money for renovations to Chicago's Wrigley Field-owned by the Tribune Company-unless the writers lost their jobs.

The massive corruption charges proved embarrassing for Obama, who called for the governor's resignation. The Justice Department did not accuse Obama or his staffers of wrongdoing, and Obama said an internal investigation found that his staff had no "inappropriate conversations" with Blagojevich. The Chicago Tribune reported that Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel spoke with Blagojevich about possible replacements for the senate seat, but officials said Emanuel isn't a target of their investigation. In one transcript, Blagojevich complained that Obama's team was "not willing to give me anything except appreciation."

The case highlighted the long history of corruption in Illinois politics: Juries have indicted six Illinois governors in the last 80 years for charges ranging from racketeering to tax evasion and have convicted three. Courts have convicted nearly 80 elected officials in Illinois since 1972 and have indicted many more.

But even FBI agents found the depth of the Blagojevich case surprising. "If [Illinois] isn't the most corrupt state in the United States, it's certainly one hell of a competitor," said Robert Grant, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. "I think even the most cynical agents in our office were shocked."

Colson wasn't shocked. The formerly powerful Washington player who also fell to corruption said pride and self-obsession easily grip many in powerful positions: "But as I learned firsthand, self-obsession destroys character. It has to."

Calling pride "a spiritual cancer," Colson said those looking for solutions to the corruption in Illinois and beyond won't find it in horizontal views. "The only cure, for any of us, is to stop looking down and to look up," he wrote. "The cure can only be brought about in someone who has come to realize that the will and power to do good and not evil comes from God alone."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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