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Authors: Willie Geist

American Freak Show

BOOK: American Freak Show
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For Mom and Dad,
who taught me that the freaks are
always more interesting



was sitting on the set of
Morning Joe
one day talking to my friend and cohost Mike Barnicle during a commercial break when a loud, confident voice shot across the studio, interrupting our conversation: “Morning, fellas! I’m innocent of all charges!” You have to understand that very few of our guests on the show include a legal plea in their personal introduction, so it didn’t take long to figure out who had arrived. Blago was in the building. We’d been expecting him.

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was there to promote a book, but watching him move across the room, you would have thought he was running for third-floor fire warden in our building. He shook the hand of just about every member of our crew (and those of some confused foreign tourists who wondered why a strange, aggressively enthusiastic man with odd hair was telling them he was innocent of an unspecified crime—was he part of their NBC tour?). After signing a couple of unsolicited autographs, Blago leapt onto the set and launched into what sounded like the dry run of an opening statement for his pending trial.

He warned us that a political smear campaign was under way in “the great state of Illinois.” But this, he assured us, wasn’t about one man and his reputation. It was about a perversion of the American justice system. It was about an audacious disregard for the basic principles of fairness, right there in the Land of Lincoln. Above all, though, it was about his new book,
The Governor
, available wherever fine books are sold.

In less than 60 seconds, Blago’s performance already had exceeded our lofty expectations. We at
Morning Joe
had been steadfast, unapologetic Blago supporters, eschewing the disrespectful term
that the rest of the media always seemed to use to preface his gubernatorial title. We preferred “
former governor
.” Christlike persecution was a theme Blagojevich had been pushing, and we were happy to indulge the narrative of “Blago as martyred religious figure.”

During our interview, Blagojevich explained that the Illinois state legislature removed him from office in something of a bloodless coup, reversing the will of the people simply because he was trying just a little too hard to bring health care to sweet little children whose families could not afford it. In Blago’s telling, his only crime was having a heart too big. For that, he lost his job. We did not ask him to elaborate on this point—details would have ruined the poetry of his argument.

After the interview, during which Blago confessed only to having used some foul language on an FBI wiretap (who among us has not?), I mentioned to the former governor that my mother is from Chicago and my dad from downstate Champaign, Illinois. My father, who covered the city for the
Chicago Tribune
in the 1970s, had recently come to appreciate Blagojevich’s bullshit artistry and charming, old school Chicago (alleged) corruption. To my surprise, Blago suggested we give my dad a call. At home. Right then. “Now?” I asked. Blago assured me he was quite serious. He wanted to talk to my father.

I dutifully whipped out my BlackBerry and called my parents’ home number. I wasn’t quite sure what Blago had in mind, but it really didn’t matter. When you’re offered an audience with Blago, you don’t ask a lot of questions. He’s papal in that regard.

My mom answered. “Mom, put Dad on the phone. It’s important,” I said sternly. It
important. She sensed the urgency in my voice and summoned my dad to the telephone. I announced to my old man that the former governor of the great state of Illinois would like a word with him. I couldn’t say why. Not because it was confidential, but because I genuinely could not provide a reason why the governor wanted to talk to my father. I handed the phone to Blago, stepped back, and watched a master at work. Some say Barack Obama is the greatest orator of our time. With due respect, I say he isn’t even the best in Chicago.

Over the next two minutes, Blago performed an uninterrupted monologue that included several declarations of innocence, repeated promises not to let my father down, sincere thanks for his ongoing support during these difficult times, a solemn pledge to keep fighting for my dad and for
the people of Illinois who put him in the office to which he intended to return soon, and, naturally, high hopes that this would be, at long last, the year for those Cubbies.

After listening to that speech, how could my dad possibly break the news to Blago that he hasn’t lived in Illinois since 1980? We just went with it. It seemed unlikely that my father would be called from New York City back to Cook County for jury duty on the Blagojevich trial, but my dad and I sure as hell weren’t going to get between a man and his mission to personally heal the wounds of his state, one potential juror at a time.

Blago eventually said good-bye to my father and handed the phone back to me. He then asked for a pen to sign one more autograph, he posed for a couple of photographs, he proclaimed his innocence to an unwitting member of the cleaning staff, and then, just like that, he was gone. Our brush with Blago was over. He belonged to the world again, but for that brief, shining moment he was ours.

My dad had always held up the “Vote early, vote often” Mayor Daley as the gold standard for Chicago political characters, but he conceded to me after that phone call, “Okay, you’re right: Blago is the best.” It was an oddly poignant father-son moment. For better or worse, my dad has passed down to me an attraction to the American Freak Show. And there I was, rubbing elbows with one of the great freaks of our time. I mean that purely as a compliment, by the way.

My father, who has made a successful career of following strange people around the country and telling their stories, taught me not to waste time protesting the self-inflated showmen and bloviating bullshitters who populate our culture. It’s more fun to marvel at them, to appreciate them, to be grateful for them, and to mock them relentlessly. I was taught to applaud audacity like that shown by an impeached Illinois governor who once said he could relate to “Mandela, Dr. King, and Gandhi.” Come on, that’s great shit. Self-righteously calling out Blago for being a cartoonish charlatan is like declaring loudly that cheeseburgers are bad for you. Of course they are. That’s not the point. They’re goddamn delicious. And the bigger, the better.

So I say, let others judge the (alleged) sins of Rod Blagojevich. I salute a man who proudly represents the new instant American celebrity—thrusting himself into our lives out of nowhere with an act of human frailty (or, you know, criminal wrongdoing) and then redeeming himself through the magic of reality television. Like most of the characters in this book, Blago came without warning, sent from the pop culture gods to entertain us briefly before inevitably evaporating into the ether, leaving behind only a thinly sourced Wikipedia page full of memories.

The stories you’re about to read are made up, but the people are all quite real (except for John Edwards—it turns out he’s actually one of those security dummies people put in their passenger seats so they can ride in the HOV lane). You know the characters well, even if you’ve tried to avoid them. They are criminals and creeps, hypocrites and heathens, gluttons and Gooselins. Yes, they are freaks, but they’re
freaks. So pull up a seat and enjoy the show.

AMPA, January 21, 2013—Determined to reinforce the “Washington outsider” image that swept her into office two months ago, President Sarah Palin held her inauguration ceremony tonight at the Ice Palace arena in Tampa, Florida, during a live episode of World Wrestling Entertainment’s
Monday Night Raw.
Bucking inaugural tradition, President Palin was sworn in as the nation’s forty-fifth president immediately following the highly anticipated grudge match between former tag-team partners John Cena and the Undertaker. President Palin precipitated the end of that match by striking Mr. Cena across the back with a metal folding chair, drawing cheers from the supporters gathered to hear her speech. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin confirmed to the Associated Press that Mrs. Palin is the first president to have participated in a professional wrestling match on the day of her inauguration.

The oath of office was administered by Judge Larry Joe Doherty, host of the popular syndicated show
Texas Justice
. In a departure from protocol that stunned constitutional scholars, Palin refused to take the oath from the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Palin called Chief Justice John Roberts “a good man,” but “another Beltway insider who has grown out of touch with Real America.” Palin added, without prompting, “I sure as heck wasn’t gonna have that liberal Spanish lady from New York City give the oath. Might as well just hand the country over to the illegals at that point.” Without having reviewed the complete historical record, Kearns Goodwin speculated that this evening’s inauguration was the first presided over by the host of a syndicated television program (note: Judge Reinhold was offered the honor by President George W. Bush, but declined).

Hitting the familiar broad themes from her successful campaign, President Palin’s remarks were notably brief by historical standards. Her aides cited pressure from WWE officials to leave time in the broadcast for a planned “Legends Rematch” between Sgt. Slaughter and the Iron Sheik. A senior staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he generally did not wish to be associated with Mrs. Palin, said the president-elect agreed to curtail her address because “she knew America wanted to see an Iranian terrorist wrestler get his butt whooped by a patriotic American.” According to the source, Palin also said she remembered from her friend Cindy’s “super-lame” rehearsal dinner how annoying a long speech can be.

The following is a copy of President Sarah Palin’s inauguration address, as prepared by Palin herself:

Good evening, my fellow Americans!
(pause for standing ovation and “Sarah! Sarah!” chant)
I am so proud to be standing here as your President of America!
(pause for even bigger cheers)
Hell yeah! Welcome to Inauguration 2013, brought to you exclusively by the people at Arctic Cat Snowmobiles, who invite you to “Share Our Passion.”
(pause and let animated Arctic Cat run across the bottom of the screen so we get the free sleds they offered in exchange for the inauguration shout-out)
Before we get started here, I want to point out that Todd has a card table set up out on the concourse to sell his new DVD
Wipeout! The First Dude’s Most Awesome Snowmachine Wrecks Ever!
Pick one up on your way out, and not just because Todd is a majorly hunky guy!
Seriously, the wrecks are awesome. People die in some of them, and, ya know, life is so precious and whatnot.

I want to begin this evening by thanking my tag-team partner during this long campaign fight. Please welcome my running mate and dear friend, the brand-spankin’-new vice president of YOUR United States of America, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair!
(huge cheer)
His enthusiasm and belief in America’s fundamental greatness are so appreciated by me. And how cool was that clothesline move he pulled on Joe Biden during the debate?!
(pause for “Nature Boy” to do that awesome “Whooooooooo!” thing he does)

Ya know, they told me I was crazy to hold my inauguration on WWE’s
Monday Night Raw.
They said, “Sarah, this just isn’t the way things are done. . . . Ya gotta do it on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.”
(pause for boos—everyone hates D.C. and the people who live/work there, except for Michelle Bachmann—she’s a doll)
And I’m sittin’ here thinkin’ to myself, “Is this the same Capitol Hill where nothin’s been gettin’ done for the past few hundred years or so, except when Reagan was there?”
(pause for wild cheering)
“Is this the same Washington, D.C., that’s been trying to tell the rest of us what to do for the last 4 years? The same Washington, D.C., that’s force-feeding us health care we never asked for?”
(loud boos)
Ya know what I told ’em? “Thanks, but no thanks on that speech in Washington. I’m gonna go share this night with my friends down in Tampa and on TV screens across this great nation of ours.”
(wild cheers)

So here we are at the Ice Palace, home of the 2004 Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning!
(big cheer—people relate me to hockey and remember my killer zinger at the ’08 convention about pit bulls and hockey moms)
The only thing sweeter than winnin’ the presidency is winnin’ that Cup! Am I right, Tampa?!
(more cheers)

Listen, I know you’re waiting to see Sgt. Slaughter come out of retirement to open a can of you-know-what on the Iron Sheik, a terrorist wrestler from Iran
(loud boos—I’d take down that dirty terrorist myself if they’d let me),
so I won’t keep ya here long. Plus, I don’t want to make this one of those long snoozefests like the last guy used to give us. Dear Lord, Hussein Obama, my kids are gonna be grown up by the time ya finish talkin’ about all your inside-the-Beltway gobbledygook!
(laughing and cheers—people are fed up with this Indonesian guy, Obama)
We get it: you went to Harvard. You know a lot of stuff. Congratulations. Now stop interrupting my
show with these dang prime-time speeches!

Thank God those days are over, huh? Before I begin, I want to first thank Sgt. Slaughter for his brave service to this country
(pause for cheers—I assume he served in Vietnam . . . he’s wearin’ a camouflage leotard)
and I look forward to him wiping the floor with this foreigner whose country continues to hide its nuclear ambitions from the world.
(pause for chants of “Towelhead!” as prompted on the JumboTron)
I don’t know what the last guy told ya, Mr. Sheik, but I’m here to tell ya that America’s days of appeasement and not attacking you with our full military might are officially over!
(crowd erupts, waves flags, chants U-S-A!)

And that being the theme of my inauguration speech here—American greatness and an unwillingness to apologize for it, as others have been so eager to do. There are those who have said America is diminished by a weak economy and a foreign policy that rubs some the wrong way. Well, I’ve got one thing to say about that: If it rubs ya the wrong way, you’re free to leave . . . the world! Leave the world if you don’t like it! That’s right: get off the Earth planet!
(pause for wild cheers—people do NOT like foreigners)
How’s that for a foreign policy, China?! The last time I checked, Ronald Reagan beat the Communists a long time ago. Oh, and get me an egg roll while you’re up!
(more cheers—people really seem to love egg rolls, although I don’t see their appeal . . . where’s the beef?!)
I’ll be sure to get right back to ya with that trillion bucks we owe ya, by the way . . . not!
(laughter and cheers—people like having their credit card debts forgiven)
America doesn’t owe anybody anything, my little Oriental friends.

So on the foreign front, no apologies, and back here domestically, just believing that hard-working Americans can get the job done. I intend to put our great citizens back to work and remind the world that America is the home of great ideas and great things. America is the place where the car was born! America is the place where the computer was born! America is the place where Brad Paisley was born, for cryin’ out loud! And if you believe my friend Carol, America is the place where Jesus was born! Is Carol here? Hi, Carol!

So how do we get this country on track again? Well, here’s a start. As my first act in office, I have directed the Snuggie company to make a new Snuggie emblazoned with the American flag. Adding American jobs to make those new Snuggies and restoring American pride in the process!
(pause for cheer—“American pride” is the ONLY kind of pride!)
And, yes, America, in my administration, every purchase of a Snuggie
comes with the free reading light!
(pause for cheer—people love free stuff)

That’s just the first step in what will be an immediate restoration of American greatness after 4 years of leadership by an Indonesian man who also happened to be black
(pause for boos—people do not like minorities)
. In my first hundred days, which start pretty soon here, I will deliver on the three promises I made to you before you sent me to Washington through that magical process of electoral democracy imagined by our forefathers, who were true patriots and also ensured our right to keep and bear arms.
(pause for big cheer—people love guns ;) )

Number 1, I will sign an executive order enacting my “Eye for an Eye” policy on abortion: you abort an unborn child, we abort you. Plain and simple.
(pause for big cheer—people love catchy antiabortion slogans that can be put on bumper stickers)

Number 2, New York’s Manhattan Island will be converted into a penal colony, inhabited by America’s worst of the worst: Hollywood smut merchants, suspicious-looking cab drivers, and high school biology teachers.
(pause for cheer—people don’t like New York City, home of liberals, gays, Muslims, and Jewish people . . . and probably liberal, gay Muslim Jews)

Third, but certainly not least, I will construct a dome over the United States of America to prevent those who would wish harm on us from delivering on their terrorist promises.
(pause for huge cheer—sports fans love domes!)
Creating jobs in the construction sector and defending America—that’s what we call back in Alaska a “two-fer”!
True, there will no longer be sunlight in our great nation, but I ask you, what’s more important: getting a nice suntan or protecting our freedoms?
(pause for cheer—the word “freedoms” really sets people off)

I’ll spare you the other details on the economy and health care and all that jazz because an inauguration is not the time to discuss boring stuff. It’s the time to celebrate the part of America that is not inhabited by the elites of Washington, New York, Los Angeles, and especially San Francisco, if you know what I mean.
(pause for cheer—people do NOT like gays)
I hear Sgt. Slaughter gettin’ ready back there so I’ll wrap things up here by saying something I’ve been waiting 4 years to say: Hey, Katie Couric, you wanted to know what I read? Well, I’m president now, so look real close here, see if you can read this, biaaaaaatch!
(thrust middle finger in the air to wild cheers)
The Mama Grizzly is President!

Thank you, Tampa! May God bless you and God bless the states of America that are worthy of his blessing! Todd and I are goin’ to Dave and Buster’s to play air hockey tonight if you want to join us! Jalapeño poppers are on us, America!

BOOK: American Freak Show
10.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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