Since he was federally charged with trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been wrongly caricatured as some kind of hapless jester prancing on the edge of madness.
Jesters hold rattles with a likeness of their heads on the end of a stick, and they hop off into a corner, prattling to themselves. That's what jesters do.
Jesters don't pick up the race card in a nationally televised news conference and slam it into the face of every Democrat in the U.S. Senate, a palm heel strike to the tip of the nose, leaving all of them watery-eyed, their lips stinging.
Yet that's what Blagojevich -- aided by former Black Panther-turned-Daley-machine-functionary Bobby Rush -- did at that stupendous news conference in Chicago on Tuesday. That's when the governor appointed Democratic empty suit Roland Burris, a black, to fill the Senate seat vacated by Obama.
"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said.
It was a brazen move, and a smart one, and though the race card was ugly, there was no passion in it. There was no lunacy involved.
"This is not about Roland, this is about Rod," said savvy political consultant Thom Serafin when I called him while watching the circus of the politically bizarre. Serafin correctly predicted weeks ago that it would be Burris, soon after Blagojevich was arrested and most other Senate hopefuls pulled out lest they be infected by the governor's dilemma.
"This is Rod telling the political class that he's still active, that he's still around, that he's still the governor," Serafin said. "And how do they deny Roland Burris? They can't."
On TV, Burris was chattering amiably, saying nothing as usual, and this time he forgot to mention several key facts about himself: That he's waited his turn and now it's his turn; that he's had his gravestone carved with all his political titles but he left room for more, and that he helped elect Blagojevich by running in the Democratic primary for governor and pulling black votes from Blagojevich's strongest challenger, former Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas.
It's that kind of arithmetic that politicians find impossible to deny.
"Let me just remind you that there is presently no African-American in the Senate," said Rush, the U.S. representative of the 1st Congressional District, whom the young Obama challenged years ago and got trounced by, teaching Obama to embrace the realities of Chicago politics: Go along and get along.
On Tuesday, Rush was obviously quite ill, but he was not mentally unstable. He was certainly strong enough to use the angry race language of the 1960s as he stood next to Burris and Blagojevich. Rush warned that no sitting Democrat would go on record for long to bar an African-American from taking the seat.
"I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. Roland Burris is worthy," Rush said.
Isn't that the old politics of race that Obama was to have transcended for us?
But there it was, out in the open again, the images of young men hanging from trees in old black-and-white photos offered up easily by Rush, who has himself cozied up to Mayor Richard Daley and for a time was in charge of a Daley political fund.
"And I don't think any senators want to go on the record to deny an African-American from taking a seat in the U.S. Senate," Rush said, ominously.
Grown-ups have seen such theater before. The only things missing were cameo performances by those two prolific race card players, Al Sharpton and Chicago's own the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
But Sharpton was preoccupied, giving photo ops to Caroline Kennedy for her New York Senate campaign. That video clip of the two having a cozy lunch, chatting amiably like old friends as they spear their vegetables, continues to run endlessly on cable TV news. While Sharpton might think the Kennedy lunch was expensive, she will no doubt consider it cheap at the price.
Meanwhile, Jackson has his own issues. His son, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Bud Light), is mentioned in the Blagojevich federal criminal complaint as Senate Candidate 5, whose emissaries reportedly promised Blagojevich $1 million in campaign cash in exchange for his appointment. Congressman Jackson has denied making any such arrangement.
Senate Democrats are talking tough now, saying they won't seat Burris, but that won't hold. The debate has been framed. The only black in the Senate leaves for the White House, another black is appointed to fill that spot, and Democratic politicians know they owe their livelihoods to black voters.
That talk about transcending race was just talk. Skin pigment trumps ideas, and Blagojevich, who may be facing a jury soon, wants all the friends he can get.
Of course, Tuesday's fiasco could have been avoided. Democrats in the state legislature could have stripped Blagojevich of his appointment powers and imposed a special election. Obama also could have demanded it. But as he has done so often in his career, Obama avoided a confrontation and looked the other way.
Democrats tried to finesse this, and they allowed Blagojevich the opening he needed, to hold that news conference and defy everybody. And so I'm forced to tip my hat to Gov. Dead Meat on this one, for sheer brazenness.
He's no jester. And it takes guts to keep a straight face while Democrats about you are losing theirs.