PATRICK Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, had Milorad Blagojevich, Illinois' notoriously corrupt governor, arrested Dec. 9 because he feared that "Hot Rod" was about to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
At the time of the arrest, the FBI released portions of wiretaps in which Mr. Blagojevich discussed, in profane terms, what he wanted in exchange for picking the successor Mr. Obama preferred: a Cabinet post or a cushy job with the Service Employees International Union.
Since he had to know the FBI had been investigating him, many wondered why Hot Rod would speak so brazenly and recklessly on a line on which he ought to have suspected the FBI was listening.
"He's utterly mad, completely, and totally off his rocker," wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown on Dec. 10.
"I've long since come to the conclusion that Rod Blagojevich is the stupidest governor in all of our 50 states," said Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics.
But if Hot Rod is crazy, he's crazy like a fox, and if he's stupid, he's smarter than most of the other Democrats in Illinois.
In a hilarious press conference Tuesday, Governor Blagojevich announced he'd selected Roland Burris, 71, who is more famous for having been the first black state comptroller and black state attorney general in Illinois than for anything he did in those jobs, to fill the vacant Senate seat.
We will enjoy getting to know Mr. Burris. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass described him as an "empty suit." But an empty suit with considerable self regard. He's already constructed a mausoleum for himself in Chicago's Oak Woods cemetery with the words "Trail Blazer" inscribed on it.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, backed by all Senate Democrats and Mr. Obama (in a characteristically late and tepid statement), said the Senate wouldn't seat Mr. Burris.
The irony will be rich if Mr. Reid makes good on the threat. The Senate last refused to seat a lawfully elected or appointed senator in 1947, when Republicans and northern Democrats refused to seat the infamous racist Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, who had been elected to a third term the year before.
Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and the only person to have beaten Barack Obama in an election, spoke on behalf of Mr. Burris at Mr. Blagojevich's news conference. It would be racist, he said, for the Senate to reject Mr. Burris. On CBS' Early Show the next morning, Representative Rush expanded the charge.
Senate Democrats would be acting like the segregationists of the past if they failed to permit Mr. Burris to join them, Mr. Rush said.
Mr. Reid may be bluffing. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution reserves to the Senate the sole right to determine the qualifications of its members. But that right has been clouded by a 1969 Supreme Court decision. The Supreme Court ruled the House of Representatives could not deny a seat to flamboyant Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell since he was duly elected, met all of the Constitution's (meager) qualifications for the office and suffered from none of its disabilities. If Senator Reid follows through on his threat, there almost certainly will be a court fight.
All this could have been avoided had the Illinois legislature, in the immediate aftermath of Governor Blagojevich's arrest, passed a law requiring the Senate vacancy to be filled by a special election.
But the majority Democrats feared a Republican might win. So they stalled. And now they and their state are the laughingstock of the nation.
"Let's face it. The nation is mesmerized by us," wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin on Wednesday. "We are like one of those television specials on National Geographic featuring a newly discovered, strange, and self-destructive tribe that somehow still endures through the wacky cult of personality exhibited by its leaders."
Outsmarted by Hot Rod Blagojevich. That's like losing a football game to the Detroit Lions. Illinois' Democrats have much to be embarrassed about.