Rod Blagojevich trial shows spending habits to which he was ill-suited

Following the money: Patti and Rod Blagojevich, as his federal corruption trial shows, spent money on the finer things in life. But they clearly missed the finer points of truly appreciating luxury.
Following the money: Patti and Rod Blagojevich, as his federal corruption trial shows, spent money on the finer things in life. But they clearly missed the finer points of truly appreciating luxury. (Charles Rex Arbogast - Associated Press)
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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

There is no smoking gun quite like a six-figure fashion bill.

As the prosecution lays out its case against Rod Blagojevich, who is charged with trying to sell President Obama's old Senate seat, the former Illinois governor's penchant for buying custom-made suits, fancy shirts and expensive ties has been put into evidence. Both Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, had a debilitating fashion habit, one that totaled about $400,000 over almost seven years. That dollar figure, which surpassed what they spent on their mortgage, helped sink them deep into debt.

After combing through their credit card bills, the prosecution extracted tantalizing tidbits, such as how on one April day in 2006, Blagojevich spent $1,302.53 on ties. Even for a gentleman splurging on four-in-hands by, say, Hermes or Charvet, that's an awful lot of neckwear. Other ledger entries showed, according to the Associated Press, that Blagojevich spent more than $10,000 in a day on suits. In the universe of custom-made clothing, this probably amounts to two suits. But if this was a regular expenditure, where, pray tell, was he storing them all?

The prosecution did not limit itself to generalities. No, no, it got specific. A basket-weave tie from Saks Fifth Avenue cost $179.85. His wife spent $1,847 on a designer dress one day and $2,264 on a jacket. For anyone who regularly peruses the racks of Prada or Dolce & Gabbana, these prices would not come as much of a surprise. But they are startling in light of statistics that indicate the cost of those three items is just a couple hundred bucks shy of the total annual clothing budget for an American family of four. Clearly, Norman Rockwell's America is not shopping at Saks.

The Blagojeviches were, as one might have guessed, great fans of Saks, as well as Neiman Marcus -- shops where the couple could make a date night out of a high-end shopping spree. For instance, they spent, over time, $28,000 at Neiman's.

They had expensive taste -- taste that, it turns out, they couldn't afford. More than that, they seemed to be breathless consumers whose desire for pricey goods simply could not be sated.

Surely Blagojevich never expected that his credit card records would be made public -- certainly not by a prosecutor trying to put him in prison. But now that the closet door has been opened, so to speak, one can't help but to look inside and ask two questions. What sort of message did the prosecutor send by providing so many details about the expenditures? Instead of just getting a look at the final bill, the public now knows that Blagojevich likes, for example, Tom James custom-made suits.

And second: Did he look good in these clothes that cost him so dearly?

A politician can take quite a scalding for spending excessively on a wardrobe. But it's not necessarily just the cost that matters. It's whether it gives the perception of gluttony.

Indeed, a host of officeholders in Washington spends significant sums on clothes, from designer labels to Savile Row tailors. And most constituents do not begrudge them this luxury. Folks want their representatives to look good. And unless they have campaigned on their Wal-Mart bona fides, there's no reason they shouldn't spend their clothing allowance as they please.

But the rules that apply in the foodie universe also apply in fashion. Foodies will tell you that it's more satisfying to sample one high-quality chocolate than to gorge on cheap candy bars. The unspoken corollary is that one should be astute enough to know that overdoing it on expensive truffles is the ultimate in nauseatingly bad taste.

The point of luxury is to savor it, to recognize it as something special. Not to treat it as cavalierly as one would a McDonald's hamburger.

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