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updated 12/10/2008 11:46:51 AM ET 2008-12-10T16:46:51

Little in Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s background prepared the people of Illinois for the man who was revealed in the criminal complaint that dropped like a bombshell here on Tuesday. Delusional, narcissistic, vengeful and profane, Mr. Blagojevich as portrayed by federal prosecutors shocked even his most ardent detractors.

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“I almost fell over,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and a frequent critic of the governor. “I was speechless and sickened. In all of the millions of indictments I’ve read over the last years, I can’t remember anything as vile as this.”

Mike Jacobs, a Democratic state senator and former friend of the governor, suggested that Mr. Blagojevich may have lost his grip on reality.

“I’m not sure he’s playing with a full deck anymore,” Mr. Jacobs said. “I think he brought a lot of this on himself. He’s so gifted, but so flawed in a number of fundamental areas. It’s like he dared the feds to come get him.”

Drama and suspicion
Drama and suspicion have long surrounded Mr. Blagojevich, a 51-year-old Democrat known locally for his quirky love of Elvis and a big black signature hairstyle of his own. Though he ran for office as a reformer, he has been embroiled for years in a federal investigation into hiring fraud that included multiple departments under his purview.

More recently, his reputation was left badly damaged after the corruption trial of the political fund-raiser Antoin Rezko, who was convicted in June of fraud and bribery among other charges. Mr. Blagojevich’s name and administration surfaced again and again during Mr. Rezko’s highly publicized trial in Chicago. The governor’s approval rating, according to The Chicago Tribune, had sunk to 13 percent.

Yet, despite what looked like his lead role over many years in a political theater of the absurdly corrupt, Mr. Blagojevich, the seemingly earnest son of a Serbian steelworker, was not charged with any wrongdoing. Rumors swirled, and denials were issued.

Tuesday changed all that. It was not simply the extortion and venality with which he was charged that left mouths gaping, but the ruthlessness and grandiosity revealed in the federal wiretap transcripts, even as he knew he was being investigated.

“You might have thought in that environment that pay to play would slow down,” the United States attorney in Chicago, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, said at a news conference announcing the charges. “The opposite happened: it sped up. Governor Blagojevich and others were working furiously to get as much money from contractors, shaking them down, pay to play, before the end of the year.”

In the words of Dick W. Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a former city alderman: “It’s over the top, even for the governor.”

Figuring out the pathology
Ms. Canary, the reform advocate, said she was trying to figure out the pathology that might explain such actions because they are not part of the classic style of Chicago corruption.

“He was raised in the old Chicago ward system where the most important principle is loyalty,” she said. “It’s about protecting one another, spreading perks, and earning personal power. It’s not about huge personal enrichment.”

But that, according to the 76-page criminal complaint, seems to be exactly what Mr. Blagojevich, who cast himself as a man of the people, was after.

Whatever his current motivation, he came into office with a very different persona. As a young congressman representing the North Side of Chicago, Mr. Blagojevich was pegged as a rising star with a populist touch. Undistinguished as a lawmaker but with proven likability in and out of Chicago, he seemed hellbent on pushing reform and cleaning house in a state with an embarrassingly overt culture of political corruption.

Video:  ‘Tough defense’ Running on a do-good theme as a candidate of change, he swept into the governor’s office earlier this decade mainly on promises that he would be different, that he would restore integrity to the governor’s office after the previous chief executive, George Ryan, was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison for racketeering and fraud.

“Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Illinois has voted for change,” he told a crowd at his victory party on election night in 2002.

'Stuck' as governor
Back then, it was not a secret that Mr. Blagojevich had big dreams for himself that included the White House. The federal complaint suggested that he was disenchanted with being “stuck” as governor, and had his eyes still trained on the presidency — in 2016, since 2008 was a lost cause.

Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Mr. Blagojevich had clearly come into office believing he was destined for bigger things, and may have been tripped up by that ambition.

“The combination of arrogance and stupidity that would prompt him to continue in these types of behaviors is just stunning,” Dr. Redfield said. “There’s no feedback loop or reality check.”

Mr. Blagojevich had grown increasingly isolated in recent years, particularly from his own state’s Legislature and even from his father-in-law, Dick Mell, a powerful longtime Chicago alderman who showed him the political ropes as a younger man.

The governor was rarely seen around his offices in Chicago and Springfield, preferring instead to spend time at home on the North Side.

“I believe he became a prisoner of his own home,” Mr. Jacobs said.

Dr. Redfield said he had little sympathy for a man who regarded “the state of Illinois like it’s a big Chicago ward, where a U.S. Senate seat is like granting a zoning variance or liquor license.”

He added: “The damage to the state, it’s going to take a long time to dig out.”

This article, "A Portrait of a Politician: Vengeful and Profane," was first published in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Photos: Rod Blagojevich

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  1. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich leaves the federal building with his wife Patti, right, in Chicago, Dec. 7, 2011, after being sentenced for 14 years on 18 corruption counts. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rod Blagojevich speaks to the media at the Federal Courthouse June 27, 2011 in Chicago. Blagojevich was convicted of 17 of the 20 charges against him, including all 11 charges related to his attempt to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. At right, is his wife Patti. (Kiichiro Sato / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A quote taken from a taped converstaion of Blagojevich is displayed during closing arguments in the impeachment trial at the Illinois capital building Jan. 29, 2009 in Springfield. Blagojevich has been accused by federal authorities of corruption including offering to sell the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama. The state senate found him guilty and he was removed from office the same day. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Gov. Rod Blagojevich speaks during a press conference in Chicago on Jan. 23, 2009 as his spokesman, Lucio Guerrero, listens. in Chicago, Illinois. The Illinois Senate is scheduled to begin an impeachment trial for the Governor on January 26. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich listens to a caller while on the air with radio talk show host Cliff Kelly at WVON in Chicago, on Friday, Jan. 23, 2009. (Paul Beaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Facing his jurors, Gov. Blagojevich, top center, presides over the state Senate on Jan. 14, 2009, in Springfield, Ill. Blagojevich is required to oversee the swearing-in of the Senate, which will decide whether to remove him from office after he was impeached by the House. (Jeff Roberson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Members of the Illinois House of Representatives meet to consider the impeachment of Gov. Blagojevich on Jan. 9, 2009, in Springfield, Ill. The House voted to impeach the governor with only one member voting no. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gov. Blagojevich points to a group of his constituents during a news conference in Chicago on January 9, 2009. He argued that he had helped them and other Illinois residents with decisions he had made as governor and that the state legislature was neglecting the people's business as it tried to boot him from office. (Stephen J. Carrera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Roland Burris, right, takes questions from reporters after Gov. Blagojevich announced on Dec. 30, 2008 that he'd selected Burris to fill Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. Senate Democratic leaders at first vowed they would not allow Burris, or anyone appointed by Blagojevich, to take the seat, but they relented and Burris was sworn in on Jan. 15, 2009. (Paul Beaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Gov. Blagojevich tells reporters that he plans to fight corruption allegations made against him by federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Blagojevich was arrested at his Chicago home by FBI agents on Dec. 9 after Fitzgerald filed a criminal complaint alleging a conspiracy by the governor and others to extract money and other benefits in exchange for Blagojevich making an appointment to the Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated after he won the 2008 election. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, announces a criminal complaint against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Arrested at his Chicago home by federal authorities on Dec. 9, Blagojevich has been charged with attempted bribery and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, center, stands before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jan Nolan in Chicago on Dec. 9 in this courtroom artist's drawing. Blagojevich's chief of staff, John Harris, is to his left and federal prosecutor Reid Schar is on his right. The FBI arrested Blagojevich and Harris Tuesday in Chicago, alleging the Governor sought favors to influence his choice for President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. (Verna Sadock / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich discusses his plans for filling President-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat the day after the election, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 in Chicago. (M. Spencer Green / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rallying support on Governor's Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, Gov. Blagojevich gives the thumbs up to a crowd, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. In June, 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich surveyed flood damage from a helicopter. The Mississippi River had flooded its banks near Quincy, Ill. (Paul Beaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Gov. Blagojevich and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger smile during a press conference at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2007 in Berkeley, Calif. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Gov. Blagojevich and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley with Sen. Barack Obama during a rally in Chicago, April 16, 2007. (John Gress / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gov. Blagojevich dances with his wife Patti on Jan. 7, 2007, during the Inaugural Ball in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Gov. Rod Blagojevich takes the oath of office in Springfield, Ill., as his wife Patti looks on, Jan. 8, 2007. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Amy Blagojevich kisses her father during a visit to the Illinois State Fair Aug. 17, 2005 in Springfield, (Tim Boyle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Gov. Blagojevich talks to the press after surveying tornado damage April 21, 2004 in Utica, Ill. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gov. Blagojevich speaks with President Bush following the dedication ceremonies for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum April 19, 2005 in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Gov. Blagojevich throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the home opening game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers on April 4, 2003 in Chicago. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Gov. Blagojevich appears before Abraham Lincoln's Tomb in Springfield , Ill., before talking about plans for expansion at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Then Governor-elect Blagojevich jogs past the Illinois' Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Ill., the day before his inauguration, Jan. 12, 2003. (Seth Perlman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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