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posted: 6/30/2011 3:00 AM

Blagojevich story obscures some serious business

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It's hard for me to think of Rod Blagojevich as anything but a creature of the news media. Is that why I feel so sorry for him and his family?

Not that justice wasn't done this week or won't be when the disgraced governor is sentenced later this year. That's a separate consideration.

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But there's something in particular about the media effect on the Blagojevich persona. All politicians learn to work the public image machine. Congressmen and senators and presidents and governors have a special relationship with it. Each may use it differently, but they all use it. It's a tool of the profession.

With Blagojevich, he has never seemed -- even in seven days of testimony with his personal freedom at risk -- to get beyond a "What, Me Worry?" approach to the public and the public's business that makes it appear as though you're actually watching that man behind the curtain -- or, in this case, that boy behind the curtain -- as he manipulates the familiar controls of the self-aggrandizing operation.

All those arcane literary references. In some people, they might suggest erudition. From Blagojevich, they seem to be pulled from "Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations."

The "my little girls" he so frequently refers to. The act of kissing babies is a political cliché for demonstrating one's love of family and the future. Whether at the state fair or the federal courtroom, Blagojevich always seems to be more interested in displaying than caring for his daughters.

The issues he championed. Health care for kids. Free bus rides for seniors. Battling Mike Madigan and the powers that be in Springfield. At times, I swear, he must feel like that Woody Allen character who gets slapped when he makes his moves on a sex-hungry date who has been regaling him with her needs: "How could I misread those signs?" Blagojevich could identify ssues people care about. He just never managed to appear sincere about them.

Which brings us to an important point. There is an art to managing the media, to managing public opinion, and people are not amused when they see it as artifice. Blagojevich actually handled it pretty well early on, turning an unpronounceable name into a household word and winning two elections for Illinois governor. But ultimately, he proved to be all hair and whine, to become -- through his superficial politicking, hyperbole and, worst of all, ethical hypocrisy -- a caricature of the inept and insincere back slapper.

Now, he is an object of ridicule and a foil for lame jokes about corruption in Illinois politics, and it all worries me because this is not a joke. A father and husband is going to prison -- like George Ryan, the father and husband who preceded him and lost his wife this week. A state is in turmoil, and laugh though we may about Illinois' sad history of disgraced politicians, the problems littered in the wake of all that disgrace are serious and real.

At some point, we have to stop all the laughing and get down to business. That's happening to some degree in Springfield now, but, as our editorial said this week, much more remains to be done. And who knows what prospects for governor will emerge? Whatever comes, I hope Blagojevich's sad tale teaches us -- and would-be government leaders -- that government is not all photo ops and headlines. It's more than image and playing to the signs one thinks the public is giving.

It's serious business. No one knows that more today than Rod Blagojevich. In our own laughter and joke making, the rest of us should remember it, too.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is a Daily Herald assistant managing editor. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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