Barack Obama and his coterie of top aides now act as if they barely know Rod Blagojevich. What isn’t widely absorbed is that David Axelrod played a key role in Blagojevich’s rise in politics. He guided his election to the U.S. Congress in 1996 and, at a critical juncture, deflected a Chicago Tribune investigation that could have derailed his career years before the U.S. Attorney did.
The story included evidence that Blagojevich was a ghost payroller on the Chicago City Council payroll and that he was illegally moonlighting as a lawyer in cases opposing the city.
Before the Chicago Magazine explored this episode last year, a Tribune reporter not associated with the 1996 story told me that Axelrod worked furiously to tone it down. He may have succeeded, according to the Chicago Magazine account.
Axelrod was also a fierce protector of his client. He brought in his friend Carol Ronen, a progressive state representative and vocal gay-rights activist, to be campaign manager—a move intended to put a good-government face on Blagojevich, who was seen by many as simply a Machine hack. And when Axelrod got word that a team at the Tribune was working on an investigative series on Mell (and, by extension, his young protégé, Blagojevich), the ex-Trib reporter complained vociferously. He argued, as the former city editor Hanke Gratteau recalls today, that the paper was “conducting the equivalent of a proctology exam” on Blagojevich. When the Tribune finally ran its story—a probing but not particularly hard-hitting portrayal of Mell that extolled Blagojevich as the “perfect candidate” with “good looks a soap opera star would envy”—some inside the newsroom suspected that Axelrod’s aggressive pushback had killed a tougher version. Gratteau told Crain’s Chicago Business, “The only thing he killed at the Tribune was his good name and reputation.”
Despite its lack of impact, the story should have served as a red flag for Illinois voters when Blagojevich sought the Governor’s office. Sadly, it didn’t.
Axelrod claims through third party interviews that he backed away from Blagojevich when he ran for Governor in 2002 because he had doubts about his readiness for the job. That may or may not be true. More likely, he had to hold back because Mayor Daley’s brother Bill seriously considered taking on Blagojevich in the 2002 Dem primary and Axelrod worked for the Mayor.
If Axelrod was so worried about Blagojevich’s suitability for public service on the statewide stage, why did he let Obama endorse his re-election campaign in 2006 when it was clear to nearly every newspaper in Illinois that Blago was corrupt and headed for criminal indictment?
Lots of Illinois Democrats, including Obama, could have stopped Blagojevich’s re-election in 2006 had they spoken up. None did and they are trying to rewrite that history by spinning sympathetic reporters after the nuclear bomb has exploded.