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Commentary: If only Rod Blagojevich had been silent earlier -- much earlier

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 19, 2010 - Calvin Coolidge made a typically terse observation that deserves attention now that a jury divided on 23 other counts unanimously agreed that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich lied to federal agents. “No man ever listened himself out of a job,” the iconically laconic 30th president of the United States once said.

Decades later, the 40th governor of Illinois offered his own take on the perils of loquaciousness. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons from this whole experience and perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I talk too much,” he said after ducking the sworn testimony he repeatedly declared he was dying to deliver. Blagojevich’s confession of fallibility reflected no bolt of introspection.

His expedient epiphany was just as meaningful as the self-serving, manipulative rhetoric he offered as he claimed to rescue the ship of state from fiscal disaster while steering it toward insolvency.

It was just as sincere as his espousals of reform while he and his cronies plotted plunder.

It was just as solid as his 2002 campaign pledge not to fire competent state employees, which later was dismissed as “puffery” by lawyers defending him in a civil suit filed by prison administrators who alleged they were dumped to make room for patronage hires.

It was just as sustainable as his public assertion he had the “testicular virility” to make tough calls while he was privately ducking into his bathroom to avoid decision-seeking staffers.

Blagojevich’s decision not to testify proved wise. A piercing cross-examination would have revealed to the jury what many of us have known for a long time: His word and words are worthless. If the impeached, ousted and freshly convicted Blagojevich ever encountered “Silent Cal” Coolidge’s message, he summarily dismissed it.

But those who seek the office he and his predecessor besmirched ought to take note of it and the broader implications the conversation-averse Coolidge might not have intended.

Listening ought to embody more than rhetorical restraint. The most effective leaders respect public opinion without pandering to it. They consult advisers and advocates from diverse perspectives. They absorb and ponder what they are told, testing their notions against conflicting ideas. They hire and heed key aides who will speak truth to power even if it means roiling the boss.

Contrast that with the testimony from Blagojevich aides who feared retaliation -– firing or exile from his inner circle -- if they dared disagree.

Is Gov. Pat Quinn a good listener? How about his main opponent, Sen. Bill Brady? The indications are unsettling. We can only hope each develops the capacity to learn and lead.

At least, they seem free of Blagojevich’s utter contempt for truth and accountability as he broke the bank, grossly abused his powers, demoralized and de-professionalized state government’s workforce and mortified everyone except for himself, his wife and a curious cult of admirers.

This is a man capable of telling Illinoisans about the sacrifices his working-class father made to help him become a lawyer and then dismissing his unconstitutional actions by saying, “I barely knew where the law library was.”

This is a man capable, at his oiliest, of referencing the parents of his law school roommate who became his chief of staff, his co-conspirator and a key witness against him. “I couldn’t help but think about his mother and father -– especially his father and the shame his father probably feels.”

Shameless. Phony. Amoral.

Never silent -– except for when it came time to defend himself under oath.

Mike Lawrence, former reporter, press secretary for then-Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, is retired. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.