Waiting for Blago: A Tale of Corruption Nostalgia

Remember "Money talks, bullshit walks?"

I do. It was 1980, the time of ABSCAM, the sting operation that brought down a U.S. senator, six congressmen and other gentry in and around my ancestral home, South Jersey. It was the time of Michael "Ozzie" Myers, the former longshoreman and barkeep, who, as a sitting Congressman cold-cocked a waiter in a Washington-area hotel for failing to show him the proper "respect." It was Ozzie who theorized - while the FBI's cameras were rolling - about money and bullshit while he took a $50,000 bribe.

It was my first brush with damage control, the perverse art that eventually became my livelihood. Old Ozzie was spinning, of course, as if to explain the perfectly good reason why he took the cash. There was, after all, a high principle involved here that required a rhetorical accompaniment.

1980 marked the first election in which I voted, and I couldn't wait to vote because of all this stuff going down. See, in South Jersey and its cousin burgh across the river, Philadelphia, the spectator sports were the Flyers hockey team, ham-fisted political gonifs, and tallying the body count of the mob war that had just broken out. The Philly Flyers during the 1970s had been known as the Broad Street Bullies because they knocked more heads than scored goals. A few doors down from my high school was Valentino's discotheque, the U.S. headquarters of the "pizza connection" heroin enterprise the Gambinos ran. Seeing a pattern here?

I was drawn to the political scene not because I approved of what was going on - I was a super-straight, even puritanical kid -- but because it was so damned amusing, like watching Dexter, where you root for a serial killer because at some reptilian level you've got a few people you'd like to take out, too.

Most of the ABSCAM pols, like the wise guys, had Ruthless Hair, savagely dense follicles despite the lurch of middle age. The culturally-demanded Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has Ruthless Hair. Unrepentant Hair. Hair that says, "I did it and I'm glad." Hair that turns upside down everything we learned in Sunday school. Just seeing Blagojevich and marinating in his shamelessness brought me back to 1980, where I would sit on the railings of the Atlantic City boardwalk with guys named Schwartzberg, De Palma and Mustafa, and girls whose names were a constellation of vowels. We would talk about which public official got pinched and which wise guy turned up in the trunk of a car with his orifices stuffed with hundred dollar bills. We were living a Springsteen ballad, and the bad guys were part of the tale.

Ozzie Myers, a white guy, nevertheless had a "fro" atop his cranium, kind of, which may have been why he was the first Member of Congress since the Civil War to be expelled from the august body. On the boardwalk, I remember DePalma being proud of this. Another ABSCAM alumnus, Congressman Ray Lederer, who died a few weeks ago, had a whole William Devane in "The Missiles of October" coif going; it was like a thick panel of brown aluminum siding across his forehead.

Mayor Angelo Erichetti of Camden, the city of my birth, had magnificent salt and pepper hair, which I admired as one of his teammates at a local softball game in the months before ABSCAM nicked him. He remembered my name whenever I saw him, telling me that people used to call him "Eric," too. I remember thinking it strange that a nice guy like him could go to jail. After all, criminals weren't nice, were they?

In the 1990s, I started missing the Boys of 1980, which happens, I suppose, as we tread lightly on the tripwire of midlife. Bill Clinton occupied me for a while. I concluded that Americans wanted Clinton to have an intern under his desk because we secretly want guys with Ruthless Hair to get that kind of action. And, yes, we wanted the shock and awe of watching him lie his ass off, not because we believed him, but because it was a gothic masterpiece, something out of Flannery O'Connor. As Bill Maher said about Clinton, "The American public wants to be lied to by the smoothest guy."

I had high hopes for Gary Condit, however, despite the initial mendacity of his hair, Condit proved to be staggeringly unlucky, not evil. Besides, his vanished love interest, Chandra Levy, was a ringer for one - actually several - of the Jewish and Italian girls who balanced precariously on those boardwalk railings with me in 1980, and not even Springsteen can find something wistful in Chandra's sorrowful arc.

Finally, I could wait no longer for Blago, so I had to invent him in my novel, Shakedown Beach, which was published in 2004. I created the fictional New Jersey Governor "Rebound" Rothman who was known equally for his shamelessness and his Ruthless Hair. I had him winning his election by blaming a hurricane on his opponent - well before Katrina. His campaign slogan was "The Boldness to Hope" -- because I thought it was funny, not because I foresaw that an obscure contemporary of mine with a funny name would throw in the word "audacity" and become the leader of the free world. In Shakedown Beach, I also conjured up a motto for the Garden State: "New Jersey: You Got a Problem With That?," which was picked up in various media afterward.

If Barack Obama has pulled a generation into public service through inspiration, I believe Rod Blagojevich will push people into public service through revulsion. The net effect may well be the same. If Blago is to consummate his destiny, however, he must never commit the one true American sin: The crime of failing to be entertaining. The key to his vindication will be audacity, not hope.

I submit to the governor's legal and PR team the Costanza Defense, which refers to that pioneer of jurisprudence, Seinfeld's George Costanza. When confronted by his boss about having sex with a cleaning woman on his desk, Costanza twisted his face into a mask of puzzlement and said, "Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I gotta plead ignorance on this one. If somebody had told me that this type of thing was frowned upon..."

Costanza, of course, was fired by the soulless Mr. Lippman, surely due to Costanza's famously fragile hairline.

A local goodfella, however, with a head of hair that could render nuclear weapons obsolete, fared better when he was arrested for cocaine possession. His attorney stood on the courthouse steps in my hometown and declared, "They were not my client's pants."

I am not kidding. Which is what makes it so beautiful, and reminds me that I didn't go far enough with my mythical New Jersey governor because, even in fiction, my turbo-charged sense of crassness and venality had not gone far enough. Perhaps it's my own hairline, which is more Bruce Willis (a South Jersey boy) than Bruce Springsteen (Central Jersey), but all I know is that my wait is over.

Blago in 2012.