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Reviews Wed Oct 10 2012

Book Review: GOLDEN by Jeff Coen and John Chase

golden cover photo.jpgThese days, the words "Rod Blagojevich" are bound to get a smirk or a groan from nearly anyone in Illinois. After all, the jailed ex-Governor's fall from grace was both a national spectacle and another embarrassment for a state with a history of corruption and imprisoned chief executives. Even back in December 2008, when FBI transcripts emerged of the former Governor's alleged attempts to sell President-Elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder, all the details were overshadowed by Blagojevich's infamous line, "I mean, I, I've got this thing and it's fucking - golden...and I, I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing."

But despite the amusing theatrics, the unlikely story of Blagojevich's political career serves as a reminder that the American electoral system rewards candidates with charisma and campaign fundraising skills over those with ethics or actual competency for public office.

Written by Chicago Tribune reporters Jeff Coen and John Chase and published by Chicago Review Press, GOLDEN: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out Of The Governor's Office And Into Prison traces the man's origins and quintessentially-Chicagoan rise to power. As the title implies, the book delves into the details of the investigation and trials that led to Blagojevich's very public conviction of 17 criminal counts including wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion, and conspiracy. Through extensive research and over 100 interviews, Coen and Chase combine biographical information with never-before-heard quotes and details to paint a vivid portrait of a narcissist who continually ignored his duties as a public servant in favor of opportunism, money, and combing his hair.

GOLDEN begins by noting how Blagojevich and his story embody the bold, tenacious spirit of Chicago--in both good and bad ways. Throughout the book, the authors describe how a son of working class Serbian immigrants with big dreams and lackluster academic and legal credentials used personal connections, charm, and a knack for memorization to work his way through the Chicago political machine.

In rapid succession, Blagojevich leapt from foot solider to Illinois state representative, U.S. Congressman, and finally, the state's 40th Governor. Along the way, Blagojevich honed his formidable retail campaigning skills, and refined several habits that come to define his leadership style: antipathy for policy details, reliance on subordinates to do his job for him, obsession with appearance and the spotlight, and near-constant scheming for more money to make possible his ultimate goal--winning the presidency. Coen and Chase then demonstrate how these habits reinforced the complex web of political nepotism and yes-men surrounding his administration that ultimately led to his downfall.

Despite its 468 pages, GOLDEN is mostly a quick and easy read. Coen's work as a criminal court beat reporter and Chase's previous Tribune coverage of Blagojevich meld together perfectly well to tell the ex-governor's tale. The narrative does get bogged down when the authors explain the details of the trial proceedings and some of Blagojevich's more complicated pay-to-play schemes, such as with the Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois. However, they manage to strike a remarkable balance of being specific, concise, and readable when describing the cast of characters surrounding Blagojevich's decision-making and scheming, along with documenting who did what and when.

Not only is GOLDEN a must-read about the former Governor, it's a must-read book for anyone who wants to understand the recent history and current face of Chicago and Illinois politics. While Blagojevich may be an imprisoned D-list celebrity, he didn't rise to power out of nowhere.

Coen and Chase will appear for a reading, Q&A, and book signing on Thursday, October 11 at 7:00pm at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster Ave. They will also be appearing on Saturday, October 20 at 11:00am at Costco, 2746 N. Clybourn Ave., for Costco members.

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