Monday, January 26, 2009

Playing the Fool?

Last week's coverage by Matt Jaffe and Sarah Netter for ABC News of Rod Blagojevich's decision to boycott his impeachment trial could easily have been taken by many as not-so-covert promotion for ABC programming:

Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he will boycott his upcoming impeachment trial, not as an act of defiance but rather to protest what he believes is an unfair process.

At a news conference this afternoon in Chicago, an animated Blagojevich said he would not attend the trial, set to start Monday in Springfield, because under state Senate rules he would not be able to call certain witnesses or sufficiently challenge the charges, making the proceedings a "trampling of the Constitution."

"It's a scary thing if they get away with doing this," Blagojevich said of state legislators. "Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?" he asked.

Instead, the governor will appear in live ABC appearances on Monday morning, first on "Good Morning America" and then again live on "The View" where he'll be joined by his wife.

Since I personally have little time for this kind of television programming, I assume that, if anything of note happens, I shall read about it through one of my "hard news" sources. In this case I drew upon the BBC NEWS Web site for an account of the first stage of Blagojevich's effort to shift the venue of judgment from the Illinois Senate to the court of public opinion (as represented by ABC viewers):

Scandal-hit US Governor Rod Blagojevich has said he considered offering the Illinois senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Mr Blagojevich is facing an impeachment trial in the state senate over claims he tried to "sell" the seat.

He told ABC that Ms Winfrey, one of America's wealthiest women, would have been unlikely to accept.

Mr Blagojevich says he is innocent and that the trial, which he is not expected to attend, has been rigged.

He told ABC's Good Morning America that Ms Winfrey "seemed to be someone who would help Barack Obama in a significant way become president".

"She was obviously someone with a much broader bully pulpit than other senators," he said.

But he said Ms Winfrey "probably wouldn't take it" and that it would have been hard to offer the seat to her in a way that "didn't look like it was some gimmick and embarrass her".

Wow! Ever since Blagojevich was arrested in the wake of what seemed like a perfectly well-conceived effort to resolve the standoff between labor and management at Republic Windows and Doors by going after Bank of America as the root of the problem, I have been agonizing over what sort of motives led to the grounds for his arrest, assuming those grounds to be valid. One possibility, of course, is that those grounds are not valid; but they seem to be supported by some pretty strong evidence. We can only hope that the question of validity will be satisfactorily resolved during the Illinois Senate trial; and, if they are valid, then this question of motive could be a real stumper.

As is often the case, when faced with such a challenging question, I often look for an answer in the "poetic wisdom" of literature. In this case I turned to my (printed) copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations for a phrase search on "play the fool." I found the following stanza from the poem "Plays," written by Walter Savage Landor in 1846:

When we play the fool, how wide
The theatre expands! beside,
How long the audience sits before us!
How many prompters! what a chorus!

I particularly enjoyed Landor's use of punctuation, but the message is still a good one. Blagojevich may have been motivated by nothing more than a desire for a larger audience; and he decided (probably rightly) that "professional deliberation" over the selection of a replacement to fill Obama's Senate seat would not win him that audience. Thus, following a logic not that different from the Lucifer-turned-Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Blagojevich decided that the role of the fool was preferable to that of the virtuous sage. At the very least this may have provided a nice little jolt for the ratings of Good Morning America and may do the same for The View; but it will probably also help Blagojevich's standing in that court of public opinion he is trying to court (not apologizing for that bit of noun/verb play). Blagojevich is betting that good political theater can always trump conventional jurisprudence, and it will be interesting to see if he cashes in any chips on that bet.

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