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Rich = smart? Rod Blagojevich blew big lesson at NU

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Memory is tricky. Nothing is less reliable than to reach across the decades and try to pluck out a fact. Something can seem crystal clear, but really be a fuzzy fantasy and you don’t realize it.

For example. I distinctly remember, as a small boy, seeing the Mona Lisa at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and never questioned that recollection until, fact-checking a book, I discovered a hitch: the Mona Lisa wasn’t at the 1964 World’s Fair; Michaelangelo’s Pieta was. I must have conflated the two. In my defense, I was 4; what really made an impression on me then were Orange Julius stands and the giant tire Uniroyal Ferris Wheel.

So I assume our disgraced ex-governor, Rod Blagojevich, was confusing memories when he took the stand Thursday and talked about his insecurities while a student at Northwestern University. “I always felt that these kids at Northwestern came from wealthier families,” he said. “They came from better schools. I always felt a little intimidated that they were smarter than me.”

He did? Rod and I were at Northwestern the same time; his senior year was my freshman year. I didn’t know him, thank God, but I certainly remember the campus back then. There were rich students. And there were smart students. But generally the rich kids weren’t also the smart kids, as Blagojevich recalls. Just the opposite. The better off you were, the greater odds that you were a sorority queen or a frat lout. I don’t remember resenting them — well, except for the kid who drove a Maserati. My thinking was: NU couldn’t admit every student based on merit; somebody’s parents had to pay the freight.

That sounds like scholarship student bravado. Maybe there was a bit of class envy. Growing up in Berea, Ohio, I had never encountered wealthy people before, and there was definitely an adjustment regarding these preppies. I was in a four-man freshman dorm room, and the one rich kid among us — “Fitch” from Christmas Hill, Connecticut — made what his three pleb roommates considered deadly social mistakes. First, he sent each of us a chatty form letter about lifeguarding at his parents’ country club over the summer. Strike One. Second, he showed up to school with golf clubs and skis. Strike Two.

Strike Three — and you really need to see my dead-on impression of him, one hand grasping the elbow of the arm waving an imaginary cigarette — was his absorbing his parents’ political beliefs and echoing them to his middle class pals. “Well Neil, the reason people are poor,” he’d say, in a plummy Thurston Howell III voice, “is they don’t go out and get the money. I mean, the money’s there.”

We, in return, were beastly to him. I remember locking him in the closet and leaving him there, or taking his bed and all his possessions and hiding them in the fire exit. It wasn’t because we envied his intellect. Maybe he deserved the razzing he got, but he was 18 — we all were — and I later felt sorry and ashamed about how badly we treated him.

I know Rod’s testimony was designed to evoke pity, and I suppose in my case it worked, because if he honestly felt inferior to the toffs at NU, in their green Izod shirts and tasseled loafers, then he truly was a lost soul.

Envy is a strange sentiment; I’d categorize it as a subchamber of ignorance. You seize on one good aspect of a person’s life and mistakenly covet the rest. A columnist at the Tribune once wrote a staggeringly stupid column, envying me because I wrote a book about being an alcoholic — where was his addiction, he mused coyly, so he could write a book about it? I felt like writing him back and saying, “You know pal, Anne Frank did well in publishing too, but you shouldn’t envy her either, because there was a price to pay. I’d happily give you credit for the book, plus every dime I got from it if I could give you the problem, too.” But then I figured, don’t waste logic on the unthinking, so didn’t bother.

The wealthy cherish the belief that they are smart people whom fate rewarded for their gifts, even if their most brilliant act was being born. Henry Ford worked for his fortune, but also felt it made him a genius who could single-handedly end World War I. It didn’t. I once wrote a profile on a well-known Chicago art collector who then began sharing his vile, Islamophobe opinions with me. I had to ask him to stop. “Just because you’re rich Howard,” I wrote him, “doesn’t make you right.”

This isn’t to slag the wealthy — you can be both rich and smart. It is possible. But the two don’t go naturally hand-in-hand the way, oh, rich and haughty do. They taught that every day I was at Northwestern; it’s sad — yet another sad aspect in a tawdry little tragedy — that Rod Blagojevich missed the lesson.

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