George Ryan


It’s hard to believe the end of the decade is already upon us.

Have 10 years really passed since people worried about Y2K computer problems and how the country would heal in the aftermath of closest presidential election in U.S. history? Has it really been a decade since the last New Year’s Eve celebration free of the terrorism worries that come with living in the post-9/11 world?

I remember New Year’s Eve 1999 well. It was the first time I rang in the new year in La Salle County, and I spent much of it watching the late Peter Jennings anchor ABC’s coverage of “Millennium Eve.” Jennings was on air for 25 consecutive hours, and I recall watching much of it. By the time the night was over, Jennings likely was passed out from exhaustion, and I found myself quietly singing Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” in an attempt to coax the party host’s toddler daughter back to sleep.

Yeah, it was an interesting night, and all the more memorable for it.

So much has happened since then. The Bush-Cheney presidency came and went, with its highest and lowest points arguably both involving warfare. Bush did an excellent job of rallying the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but stained his legacy by following that up with the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. (The Afghanistan war seemed like the right post-9/11 move, but unfortunately, Bush switched the military’s main focus to Iraq before the job was finished there.)

Closer to home, Illinois went through two governors who are unforgettable for the wrong reasons. George Ryan was sentenced in 2006 to six years in prison for racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud crimes committed while he was secretary of state. More recently, Rod Blagojevich was arrested and indicted on abuse-of-power charges, impeached and removed from office, and continues to be a national embarrassment to the Land of Lincoln.

At least Illinois made up for its political woes by delivering the country its first African-American president. Barack Obama galvanized voters in 2008 and faced numerous challenges throughout the first year of his presidency.

Tiger Woods began the decade by becoming the youngest player to win one of golf’s four major championships. He ended the decade by becoming the butt of many jokes after his wife caught him playing on other courses.

There were several notable natural disasters mid-decade: the tsunami that killed more than 225,000 people; Hurricane Katrina, which decimated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi; and a 2005 earthquake that killed 80,000 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Of course, these things are just the tip of the iceberg that was the first decade of the third millennium. It will be interesting to look back to this moment of time 10 years from now. If there is anything this past decade has proven, it is this: You can expect the unexpected to happen.

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Patti Blagojevich, wife of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, made her reality TV debut tonight on NBC’s “I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” As promised, I watched the show so you wouldn’t have to.

The show’s two-hour premiere was alternately annoying and entertaining. Blagojevich was one of 11 fringe celebrities on the show. The others were actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Stephen Baldwin, former NBA player John Salley, former pro wrestler Torrie Wilson, reality TV stars Sanjaya (FOX’s “American Idol”) and Spencer and Heidi (Montag) Pratt (MTV’s “The Hills”), washed-up model Janice Dickinson and the Frangela comedy duo from VH1’s “Best Week Ever.” I’m not sure when Lou Diamond Phillips’ star fell so low that his career needs an infusion of reality TV, but at least he gained back an ounce of respect after beating Dickinson for title of camp leader for the first week of the show. As camp leader, Phillips gives orders and gets foot massages from Sanjaya all week. (I wish that last part wasn’t true. It’s pretty creepy, isn’t it?)

Blagojevich got swept away by a river current in the opening minutes of the show and ate a tarantula during the second hour. (She said the tarantula had a “musty, yeasty flavor that’s not good at all.”)

Blagojevich was low-key during most of the show, generally staying out of the limelight except when Spencer Pratt asked her why her husband is facing prison time. Pottymouth Patti kept it clean as she rattled off the usual Blago talking points, which I won’t regurgitate here because I’m not Rod’s defense attorney. But she seemed to win over the dumbest “celebrities” in the group, Dickinson and the Pratts.

“I look at them as the Heidi-Spencer of politics,” said Spencer Pratt, who added that he would vote for Rod for president. The born-again Christian Pratts then prayed with Patti for strength, support and victory over oppression. Patti cried as viewers collectively gagged.

“It’s been probably the worst — the worst — six months of our life,” she whined.

Yeah, and thanks to Rod Blagojevich and his predecessor, George Ryan, the past six years have probably been the worst in Illinois history.

I’ll keep watching the show because I promised to do so, because somebody has to take one for the team and allow Blagophiles to stay informed without having to watch bad reality television. I’ll post daily updates here on The Bread Line, but you also can follow me on Twitter (I’m “thebreadline”) for live updates.

Now I’m off to watch the news and Conan O’Brien’s debut as host of “The Tonight Show.” Feel free to post comments here about what you thought of Patti and Conan’s first nights in their new gigs.

Radio Blago

Not surprisingly, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich used his two-hour radio stint on WLS-AM Wednesday to blast his critics and Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed income tax increase.

“I kept the promise not to raise taxes for six years. It took him less than six weeks to break that promise,” said Blagojevich, neglecting to mention he left his successor with an $11.5 billion deficit to fix.

His guests included comedian D.L. Hughley, who previously had Blagojevich as a guest on his CNN show; reviled sports commentator Jay Mariotti, who quite possibly was booked to make Blagojevich look better by comparison; and two actors from the Second City spoof “Rod Blagojevich Superstar.” The actors asked Blagojevich to join the cast in whatever role he wants to play.

“I think I’d like to play the U.S. attorney, and I’d be real nice to the governor,” Blagojevich said.

Speaking of which, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has until April 7 to get a grand jury indictment against Blagojevich or ask for an extension.

Blagojevich didn’t quote any poetry during the radio show, but he made multiple Biblical references, played several Elvis Presley songs, plugged the book he is writing, and mentioned his famous helmet of hair.

In his Chicago Tribune column about Blagojevich’s radio gig, John Kass noted the former governor will have plenty of time to hone his radio skills if he ends up in prison:

He might even ask his predecessor, convicted Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan to be his loyal sidekick, his Ed McMahon.

“What is this, a place full of politicians?” Rod might ask Ryan.

“You are correct, sir!”

If Blagojevich gets another shot at hosting a radio show, he should invite Kass to be one of his guests. That likely would never happen, since Kass would tear the former governor to shreds. But I’ll hold out hope for that must-hear radio show since stranger things have happened throughout the Blagogate saga.

When former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris to fill President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat Dec. 30, I wrote the following after predicting the Land of Lincoln would be stuck with Trailblazer Burris as its junior senator:

If that is the case, Burris surely will be an ineffective senator. Not only will he be scorned by his fellow senators, he will be eaten alive by the media. Burris barely survived today’s news conference, which was more like a circus than a presser. He will be hounded by questions of illegitimacy until he steps away from this mess, is forced out of it, or fulfills the two years left in Obama’s vacated term – whichever comes first.

The scorn of Burris’s fellow senators subsided quickly, but the rest of my comment still holds. Burris’s latest mess involves his sudden recall of multiple fundraising solicitations by people associated with Blagojevich, most notably Robert Blagojevich, the former governor’s brother and head of the Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund. Burris conveniently forgot to mention those conversations during his Jan. 8 testimony before the House impeachment committee.

Burris insists those conversations didn’t result in him contributing any money to Blagojevich or offering to raise funds for him, and I suppose I believe him – for now. The FBI may have a wiretap recording that says otherwise. It also is possible Burris has conveniently forgotten an offer to raise money for Blagojevich, the same way he forgot to mention those conversations to lawmakers.

Burris held a news conference Sunday to try worming his way out of his predicament, but once again the media ate him alive. (Reporters like eating worms.) Burris and his attorney, Tim Wright, sounded foolish as they tried to pass the absent-minded senator’s blame first to his main House committee questioner, state Rep. Jim Durkin, then to the media.

Although everyone but Burris and Wright remember Durkin asking clear questions that should have led to Burris mentioning the campaign contribution conversations, Burris insisted he didn’t get a chance to tell the whole story because Durkin’s further questioning led him astray.

“If they had asked me, and not taken me in a different direction, and followed up, if Durkin hadn’t followed up with another question rather than – I don’t know where we went, but the transcript will show it, we didn’t stay in that area. … Nobody ever came back to the list of names,” Burris said.

Sounds like something out of the Blagojevich impeachment trial play book, doesn’t it? Just as Blagojevich lied when he said he couldn’t question witnesses in his defense, Burris lied when he said he didn’t get an opportunity to elaborate further.

Backed with transcripts in hand, reporters continually questioned Burris about that lie, prompting the senator to lash out at the media: “The inconsistencies are coming from the press!”

Burris claimed the story has been “half-reported,” which, although not true, still gives the media a better batting average than the senator’s quarter-true statements.

As expected, Durkin and House Minority Leader Tom Cross called for an investigation into whether Burris committed perjury. Durkin also called for Burris’s resignation, while Cross questioned the senator’s mental capacity.

“If you have that much of a memory problem, maybe you shouldn’t be in the United States Senate, on a capacity issue,” Cross said.

Six years ago I couldn’t think of any way the Democrats would lose statewide power this soon to an Illinois Republican Party beleaguered by George Ryan’s corruption, lack of solid party leadership and other problems. But Blagojevich and Burris may hand the state’s reins back to the GOP if Republicans can field a decent candidate, a recurring problem for the GOP in recent years. My prediction is Durkin will attempt to ride his newfound wave of attention to either the governor’s mansion or the U.S. Senate.

Even with the power of the Chicago political machine backing them, the Democrats have a lot of repair work to do to avoid a rash of voter backlash in 2010 – especially when Blagojevich probably won’t be tried on political corruption charges until then, keeping that debacle fresh in people’s memories as they enter the voting booths.

And so it is done. Rod Blagojevich is no longer governor of Illinois.

The Illinois Senate voted 59-0 to remove Blagojevich from office and then voted 59-0 to bar him from ever holding public office in Illinois again. Of course, Blagojevich later proclaimed his innocence again, this time during a press conference outside his Chicago home.

Incidentally, Blagojevich traveled home on a taxpayer-funded, state-owned airplane before he was removed from office. His successor, Pat Quinn, said yesterday Blagojevich would need to find an alternate way home if he was no longer governor.

Blagojevich left the Capitol immediately after finishing his closing statement, which shows how little he really cared about defending himself in the first place. Either that or he just couldn’t face his accusers for longer than what amounted to a 47-minute stump speech for himself.

Regardless, the bottom line is Blagojevich is out of office, so Quinn and the Illinois legislature can get to work tackling other problems. Quinn will probably do an adequate job as governor, but because he isn’t part of the Chicago political machine, serious challenges will be mounted by people within his own party if he seeks election to a full term as governor next year. Attorney General Lisa Madigan surely will head the list of Democratic challengers to the throne. She stands a good chance of beating Quinn, too, thanks to the strong political influence of her father, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a longtime cog in the Chicago political machine.

But when voters begin contemplating that race and others next year and in the years to come, I hope they will keep in mind what freshman Sen. Dan Duffy said today about Blagojevich’s political sins.

“Testimony shows that his abuse of power has been going on for years and that many people in this government and in this chamber had to have known about it,” Duffy said.

Perhaps someday we will learn the names of those who, until recently, looked the other way as Blagojevich abused his gubernatorial powers. I’m sure we will never learn all of their identities, but I hope many of them are revealed in the hundreds of hours of FBI wiretap recordings made for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s criminal case against Blagojevich.

As for who the next governor of Illinois should be, perhaps, in wake of the impeachment of Democrat Rod Blagojevich and the conviction of his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, on federal corruption charges, it is time for a strong third-party candidate to make a serious bid. Someone with the average taxpayer’s interests at heart – like Quinn was before he sold out to be second-in-command to a crooked Chicago political machine governor.

George W. Bush leaves the Capitol via helicopter Tuesday.

George W. Bush leaves the Capitol via helicopter Tuesday.

Former President George W. Bush left Washington, D.C., and is now back in Texas.

And the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Tonight Bush addressed more than 20,000 supporters at a homecoming event held in his honor in Midland, Texas. Attendees reportedly included Bush’s chief political adviser and “brain,” Karl Rove, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and former adviser Karen Hughes.

“We are back in the state of Texas and we are here to stay,” Bush said.

Quick, somebody put a giant impenetrable dome over the Lone Star State to make sure he keeps his promise.

With that said, I have two compliments for Bush as he rides off into the sunset leaving quite a mess for our new president to clean up. First, I’m glad he didn’t issue a bunch of last-minute pardons like Bill Clinton did before he left office. That means former vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby will not have his record expunged, and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, media mogul Conrad Black and former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens still have to serve time for their crimes.

Secondly, I liked the gesture Bush made toward his successor, Barack Obama, before boarding the helicopter that flew the 43rd president to Texas. As Obama turned to shake Bush’s hand, Bush saluted Obama, the new commander-in-chief of our country. It was a brief but touching moment that made me smile – and I’m surprised I’ve heard nobody comment about it.

Sometimes Bush does the right thing. Too bad he didn’t do it more often. Maybe then our country wouldn’t be facing so many challenges as he leaves office.

Even though the U.S. employment situation continues to worsen – the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 10.3 million people (6.7 percent of the potential work force) are unemployed – it soon may be a good time to be a construction worker.

President-elect Barack Obama wants a $700 billion economic recovery package passed by Congress and ready for his signature the day he takes office. The money would go toward infrastructure funding in transportation, schools, roadways and similar areas, creating a massive public works program along the lines of the Works Progress Administration that created millions of jobs during the Great Depression.

(For perspective’s sake, CNN noted earlier this week that the U.S. government spent $597 billion on the Iraq war during the past five years, $237 billion to develop the space program and land a man on the moon, and $217 billion to make the Louisiana Purchase. The latter two amounts are adjusted for inflation.)

Needless to state, this proposal for massive job creation in the infrastructure industry via what essentially is another federal government bailout is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for states to catch up on long-delayed maintenance and improvement projects. It is the kind of opportunity Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich might call “(bleeping) golden.”

Blagojevich reportedly gave the Obama transition team a list of about 300 transportation projects for which he would like Illinois to receive federal funding. Lumped together, the relatively short-term projects would cost an estimated $2.4 billion and put about 94,000 people to work, according to the Chicago Tribune.

However, the Tribune reports there is concern among planning and transportation experts that Illinois could mess up a much-needed infusion of federal dollars for infrastructure improvements because of “the state’s track record of too much politicking and too little discipline over project selection.” That poor track record is evidenced by almost a decade of delayed and deferred roadway maintenance and mass transit expansion projects during the Blagojevich and George Ryan administrations.

I’m sure the ongoing Blagogate saga doesn’t help the state’s chances of getting a lot of the federal funds it wants, either. Blagojevich’s refusal to step down as governor, and the resulting consideration of his impeachment by state legislators, mean there is even less of a chance a state capital plan for infrastructure projects will be created in the near future. Nor will such a plan be appearing on the list of 25 accomplishments as governor that Blagojevich’s lawyers are going to give the House impeachment committee in an effort to show Blagojevich has always been working to make people’s lives better. (Excuse me while I laugh.)

Speaking of the Blagojevich list, the embattled governor addressed that topic Friday in a short, impromptu interview with ABC7 political reporter Andy Shaw.

“I think the accomplishments for people speak for themselves,” Blagojevich said. “If that’s impeachable then I’m on the wrong planet and living in the wrong place.”

At least he got that last part right about living in the wrong place. Feel free to move elsewhere, Blago – preferably to a prison cell.

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