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Only if Stupid Is a Crime

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Is Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about to be impeached on grounds of loopiness, obnoxiousness and a bad haircut? Apparently so. In defense of the Illinois state senators who seem to have already decided the governor's fate, however, the haircut really does border on the criminal.

But it is unclear to me what else Blagojevich has done that a duly constituted jury would find illegal. Even in the matter of his menacing mop, at worst he's a co-conspirator in a dastardly act committed by his barber.

Unfortunately for the governor, the Illinois Senate is not bound by the strict rules of evidence and testimony that constrain a criminal court. And even an observer as biased as I am -- what columnist wants to see such a colorful and unpredictable figure banished from the political scene? -- must acknowledge that residents of the fifth-most-populous state in the union deserve better than to be governed by a late-night punch line.

Yesterday, while lawmakers in Springfield were convening the governor's impeachment trial, Blagojevich was in New York making the talk-show rounds. He was acting more like a movie star whose latest film comes out Friday than a politician who might be out of a job by Friday.

Blagojevich is accused by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of trying to sell President Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. The governor, who maintains his innocence, told ABC's "Good Morning America" -- and this is an example of why we'll miss him -- that among those he considered for appointment to the United States Senate was Oprah Winfrey.

She is "an African American woman who probably by herself has more influence than 100 senators," Blagojevich elaborated in his appearance with the women of "The View." He went on to say that he discarded the idea after wondering whether Winfrey had any interest in the job, whether she would even take his call -- since "she's Oprah, and I'm just the governor of Illinois" -- and whether the move might be seen in some quarters as a "gimmick."

What would give him that idea?

Blagojevich also pleaded his case on NBC's "Today," in an interview taped at his campaign offices -- where prosecutor Fitzgerald's wiretaps picked up the conversations that led to the governor's arrest.

It was an exercise in futility, as far as the impeachment proceedings are concerned. Fitzgerald has asked the Illinois legislature to stay away from witnesses who might be called in an eventual criminal trial. That means the senators sitting in judgment of Blagojevich are unlikely to hear direct testimony of his guilt or innocence. The FBI affidavit detailing wiretapped conversations about the Senate seat and other matters should suffice to get the governor booted from office.

Those expletive-laden conference calls and bull sessions might not be enough, however, to put him in jail. Fitzgerald may have evidence that he has not yet presented. From what we've seen, though, it's not immediately apparent what crime Blagojevich has committed except being something of a buffoon and a jerk.

In one taped conversation, Blagojevich refers to the empty Senate seat as "a [expletive] valuable thing. You just don't give it away for nothing. . . . I've got this thing, and it's [expletive] golden." He evaluates various candidates according to what they might deliver in return -- campaign contributions, for example -- and excoriates Obama staff members for refusing to offer anything except appreciation on behalf of their favorite candidate, longtime supporter Valerie Jarrett.

In some circles, this is known as politics. Cover the children's ears.

Trying to leverage a political appointment into a political advantage is not unprecedented. Doing so while talking like a character from "The Sopranos" is an aesthetic offense, but I'm not sure it's a criminal one.

Had Blagojevich consummated a deal for personal gain in exchange for the appointment, Fitzgerald may have had an open-and-shut case. But the governor didn't consummate anything. He just talked and talked and talked, mostly about how nobody wanted to play ball with him. I question whether the tapes are enough to put him in jail.

His talents would be wasted there, anyway. Watching him on "The View," you could see that the man was born to be a talk-show host. When Joy Behar said she heard he did a spot-on Richard Nixon impression and invited him to say "I am not a crook," he wisely demurred. Then, without missing a beat, he countered: "Let me make this perfectly clear . . ."

The writer will answer questions at 2 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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