A network news producer based in New York wanted to get my reaction to the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, except that she had a problem. She was reading the criminal complaint while she was trying to talk to me. She couldn't stop gasping.
"I'm sorry," she said. "This is ... unbelievable!"
That's OK, I assured her, "Take your time. I'm a Chicago journalist. I am accustomed to the unbelievable."
That's why I came to Chicago several decades ago. It was a great news town. It was a town with gangsters and hardball politics in a state where corruption often came with a little extra zing to it.
My colleagues from more sedate little towns like New York or Los Angeles sound shocked to hear that our Democratic governor has been arrested. For Chicagoans as jaded as me, the news is like the gambling in "Casablanca."
I arrived, for example, at about the time in 1970 that Paul Powell, a former state speaker of the house and secretary of state, was found after his death to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in embezzled cash stashed in shoe boxes in a hotel room. Most recently, our former Republican Gov. George Ryan has been serving a 6 1/2 year stretch in federal prison for fraud and racketeering.
We've had more than four years of scandalous headlines tied to our current governor or his associates. The stories include 13 indictments or convictions related to illegal kickbacks, sweetheart contract deals and shady hiring practices.
So there was a sense of the other shoe dropping when the feds came for the governor. I was shocked not so much by the allegations of criminal conduct against Blago as by the audacity in the details, including the absence in the allegations of any apparent realization that he might get caught.
U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, bolstering his reputation as a modern-day Eliot Ness, says the governor treated his office like a personal ATM machine. The charges include conspiracy to in effect sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder. He hoped to parlay the offer into a possible ambassador's post, secretary of Health and Human Services or some high-paying job in a nonprofit or an organization connected to labor unions, prosecutors said.
He also tried to gain promises of money for his campaign fund, the feds said, and suggested that his wife could be placed on corporate boards where she might earn $100,000 or more.
But while reading the 76-page criminal complaint, I almost spit out my morning coffee when I saw that Blagojevich allegedly tried to shake down owners of the newspaper where I work -- and in connection with the editorial board of which I am a member.
In exchange for state assistance with the sale of Wrigley Field, according to Fitzgerald, Blagojevich wanted the firing of members of the Tribune's editorial board who had criticized him. Didn't anybody tell Blago the old line about how you don't make an enemy out of people who buy ink by the barrel? Nothing should delight an editorial writer more than the knowledge that he or she has been a burr under the saddle of the brazenly corrupt.
Yet if the charges are true, years of scandalous stories, scathing editorials and a record low approval rating of 13 percent in a recent Tribune poll barely slowed the governor down. Most of the allegations occurred in the past few months, as if almost four years of known federal scrutiny actually had made him more flamboyant in his excesses.
How much impact will the governor's troubles have on President-elect Obama? Probably not much. Fitzgerald did Obama the large favor of noting in his news conference that, "We make no allegations that he (Obama) was aware of anything."
It was also fortunate for Obama that this story broke after the election. The campaign of Sen. John McCain, who made a crack during a presidential debate about not taking ethical advice from a "Chicago politician," might well have gone wild with guilt-by-association charges against Obama's party affiliation with Blagojevich.
But from the Chicago point of view, Obama and Blagojevich occupy two opposing worlds of Democratic politics that work together out of convenience. Obama launched his political career among the Hyde Park and Lakefront independents. Blago came straight out of what's left of Chicago's old Bungalow Belt machine.
It is not uncommon to build winning coalitions in Illinois politics by making friends or, at least, neutralizing your rivals in both factions. Blagojevich's troubles will test how well Obama kept his own hands clean on his way up, even as Blago was slipping down.