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Books Mon Sep 02 2013

Book Review: Natasha Korecki's Only in Chicago

Thumbnail image for 93284100104290L.jpgI remember when I knew this Blago thing was officially huge. I was a relative newcomer to Chicago and had only recently started following its politics when a 10-year-old kid who lived at the high-rise where I worked wandered into the office one day and casually referenced Rod Blagojevich in conversation. Granted, he garbled his name in a way that I first mistook for something like "vaudeville voyager." Tough name for a kid to pronounce! But the character at the heart of the scandal wouldn't have been out of place on a Saturday-morning cartoon. Giant hair, froggy grin, panicked eyes. A villain in the comic mode for kids, sure to stay just this side of the line between risible and scary.

In Only in Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich Scandal Engulfed Illinois and Enthralled the Nation, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Natasha Korecki preserves all the corruption scandal's most cartoonish details for posterity. It's most entertaining as a sort of foul-mouthed Bartlett's, filled with astonishingly out-of-touch quotations from the former governor and his circle. (It's almost impossible to choose a favorite, but mine may be when, bidding some Spanish-speaking spectators farewell as he heads off to prison, he reaches the limits of his Spanish vocabulary and begins shouting "Si se puede!")

If you followed the case closely as it unfolded--possibly through reading Korecki's own thorough coverage for the Sun-Times--you've probably seen most of the major punch lines before. But they're still fun to revisit. I frequently found myself cracking a grin or suppressing a chuckle as I read it on the train. (The recently released paperback edition is excellent CTA reading, by the way, a compact book with a sturdy cover and wraparound flaps to keep your place.)

That's not to say it doesn't get grim, especially in a section covering Blagojevich crony Christopher Kelly, who committed suicide after being charged with involvement in several corruption schemes. Also grim is how little fun any of these stuffed suits seem to be having, as they pile up $200 neckties and expensive infidelities and campaign debt and desperation. You'd sort of like to think that this massive waste of democratic institutions at least made someone happy.

Only in Chicago consists mainly of material previously published in some form while the Blagojevich saga was still unfolding, with some additional reporting digging deeper into the backstories of key figures such as developer Tony Rezko, fundraiser Raghu Nayak, and recently convicted Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Korecki's a reporter through and through, and while she does let her own amusement at the absurdities of the case show through here and there, she's not one to editorialize. Nor does she seem to be much plagued by any questions about what it all means. When a CNN reporter asks her, late in the book, whether there's some deeper lesson to be learned, she comes up blank. The whole thing was simply one of the most baroque productions of the Chicago political machine, which will keep moving uninterrupted. What do you learn from a cartoon? That the characters will be resurrected somehow in the next episode, however damaged by the anvils and grenades tossed their way.

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