A Dark Cloud Hangs Over Blagojevich, Or Is It Just His Hair?

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 21, 2008

For Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who federal officials say tried to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder, every day has become a perp walk.

In the course of his daily routine, Blagojevich must negotiate a phalanx of reporters with whom he does not want to converse and photographers for whom he does not want to pose. The resulting images of him on the move, looking off toward the distance or with his head tucked down, have the visual effect of a hand thrust in front of a "60 Minutes" camera -- the single gesture most likely to convince an audience that the subject has something to hide.

Whenever the photographers manage to catch Blagojevich's eye, he looks aggrieved. Or simply annoyed. Neither expression makes a convincing argument that he is unfazed by the events swirling around him and wholly focused on his job.

The fact that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has suggested, with all the indignation of Kevin Costner in "The Untouchables," that the corruption in which Blagojevich is alleged to be involved is so extreme that it would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave" has made every banal gesture by the governor appear suspicious. When he was pictured loading a suitcase into a van for his wife, the simple act left one wondering: Is he leaving town? Shouldn't someone be searching that suitcase? Shouldn't someone be confiscating that suitcase?

Everything has been stained and distorted because of the thick cloud that hangs over his head. When Blagojevich emerges from a downtown office dressed in black, he evokes the image of a goodfella engaged in "waste management" instead of a public servant. When Blagojevich left his house wearing a tracksuit, he didn't look like the die-hard runner that he is. All that was missing from his ensemble was a large gold necklace and a pinkie ring.

Much has been made about Blagojevich's thick mop of brown hair, which is about one salon visit away from impeding his eyesight. Such long hair could conceivably have given him a kind of bohemian sensibility. And it is particularly thick, which, for a man of 52, is not something to be mocked but envied. The disconcerting thing about Blagojevich's style is this: He wears bangs.

His is a hairstyle that typically has not been seen on grown-ups since the 1970s when it dominated the pages of Tiger Beat magazine. In earlier, happier times, one would have been tempted to call the feathered hairdo boyish. But against the backdrop of charges that make the governor sound proudly egocentric, that thicket of hair makes him look foppish and vain. Neither characteristic provides reassurance that perhaps this whole corruption business is just an unfortunate mix-up.

And then there are those hapless images of him waving from a car. No one looks good waving from behind the tinted windows of an automobile unless they happen to be Elizabeth II in a motorcade. Whether it is Paris Hilton or Blagojevich, the message in that familiar gesture of a raised hand and terse expression is always the same: I am a good person. I hate you. Get away from me.

If Blagojevich can be thankful for anything as he endures long lenses and patient photographers, it is the arrival into the scandal-sphere of Bernard Madoff, the New York investment adviser who may have shattered the record for financial con games. Madoff has been cooperating with investigators who are looking into how he might have cost investors a mind-boggling $50 billion, but he has made several informal perp walks of his own.

Last week, he was photographed leaving Manhattan federal court wearing a dark overcoat and eyeglasses. His gray hair was slightly mussed, and he was looking intently at the sidewalk. Behind him, it was possible to see other folks on the street, and they were hunched under umbrellas. Madoff, it seems, was walking in the rain. He had fast-forwarded beyond accused all the way to pathetic.

On Wednesday, he was photographed on the street after a court date dressed in an ensemble that summed up his situation nicely. He wore a Barbour-style coat -- with all of its connotations of Upper East Side, conservative, country estate affluence -- and the baseball cap of shame. It is the hat that everyone from celebrities attempting to travel incognito to women having a bad hair day wear in hopes of hiding in plain sight.

As Madoff walked down the street and into the scrum of photographers, his gray hair poked out from the edges of his cap and his hands were slightly raised. You can sense the tension in the photographs. He's maneuvering through the crowd. But those hands also want to rise up and shield his face from the cameras. Instead, all is revealed. He doesn't look steely; he mostly just appears affable. He comes across as worse than a guilty man trying to give the illusion that everything is okay. He resembled a feeble one who doesn't really have a grip on what "okay" actually means.

There is nothing quite like being publicly accused of a crime and then having to walk the streets in front of photographers and TV cameras. No one wants to look like a walking mug shot, but there are few other choices. One can play the pity card.

Or one can be defiant, which seemed to be the decision made by Martha Stewart four years ago when she marched into court carrying an Hermes Birkin, a bag that so loudly announces its owner's wealth and privilege that one could assume Stewart was not attempting to win over the jury with empathy.

But mostly, people pretend that life goes on as usual, a favored tack that always appears delusional to everyone but, apparently, the accused. Blagojevich regularly goes from home to office. He jogs. Mostly, he ignores the photographers, except for the occasional wave when it is clear he would prefer to offer a gesture of disgust.

For him, looking "not guilty" is a matter of rationed eye contact and choreography. Looking innocent may just be impossible.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company