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Editorial: Blagojevich chased the wrong American Dream

Updated: January 9, 2012 9:14AM

One was a child of immigrants who chased a shallow version of the American Dream — fame and money and soft living.

The other was a child of immigrants who built a life of impressive achievement, brick by brick, by following a far deeper vision of that Dream, one that rewards hard work, personal integrity and respect for the rule of law.

On Wednesday, that first child of immigrants, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was sentenced to 14 years in prison by the second, U.S. Judge District Judge James Zagel, but only after Zagel waved away many of Blagojevich’s more specious arguments for mercy.

It was wrong, Zagel said, for Blagojevich to claim that he came from “nothing” when in fact he grew up in a strong immigrant family — the story of America.

It was wrong, Zagel said, for Blagojevich to ask for a lesser sentence on the grounds that he is a good father. As if that were the point.

It was wrong, Zagel said, for Blagojevich to suggest that he had been manipulated by others. As the judge pointed out, Blagojevich relentlessly pursued his schemes.

And it was wrong, Zagel said, for Blagojevich to insist that, whatever his crimes, he didn’t profit from them and had done no real damage.

“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired,” Zagel said. “You did that damage.”

Zagel sentenced Blagojevich to slightly less prison time than federal prosecutors had asked for and to a little more time than many others — including this page — thought was necessary. Fourteen years is more than double the sentence meted out to Blagojevich’s predecessor as governor, George Ryan, a man every bit or more corrupt.

But it’s hard to disagree with Zagel’s fundamental reasoning, characteristically clear-eyed and fair.

If the purpose of a prison sentence were simply to punish a bad man, Zagel might have gone easier on Blagojevich. Our former governor has never seemed so much evil as delusional. As TV reporter Mike Flannery recently put it, Blagojevich’s “wiring” seems off. And no one takes pleasure in ripping a father from his young children.

In a last-ditch plea for mercy, Blagojevich finally accepted responsibility for his crimes, saying, “I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and the things I did and I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody.” Zagel, again to his credit, noted this in setting the former governor’s prison term.

All the same, Blagojevich knew better — or should have — when he schemed to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat, when he tried to blackmail a hospital to make a big campaign donation, and when he engaged in various other half-baked crimes.

More to the point, Zagel’s first responsibility, fully achieved, was to impose a sentence designed to scare the bejeezus out of the next elected official inclined to exploit his office for personal gain. Blagojevich must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence — 11.9 years.

At least we can hope the message has finally been sent.

Our federal prisons can handle only so many Illinois governors.

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