Rod Blagojevich is cracking jokes as he prepares to go on national television to plug his new book and once again defend himself against the widespread corruption charges that led to his political ruin.
Everything about this nine-month stretch leading up to his criminal trial should be terrifying and sobering. But the former Illinois governor seems in a playful mood on the set of CBS' "The Early Show.""I'm going to sing some Elvis," the well-known Presley fan says as he walks toward the interview chair. "I'm going to sing 'Don't Be Cruel' and have some fun."
Blagojevich doesn't attempt karaoke, but he probably would have if someone had asked. Since his arrest last year, he has embarked on a campaign of high jinks, doing just about anything that would give him a platform to declare his innocence, make a buck or regain the public's affection.
In the last three months alone, he has sung an Elvis song at a block party, attended a performance of a musical mocking his demise and sent his wife to Costa Rica to compete in a jungle-based reality show. His new book tour soon will find him pleading his case before late-night comics and raunchy shock jock Howard Stern.
It has been a swift and steep fall for the Chicago Democrat, who until eight months ago enjoyed all the perks and prestige of being governor to the country's fifth-largest state.
"What you want to know is: How did I end up in this place where I'm singing Elvis to make money?" he asked during a daylong string of appearances accompanied by a Tribune reporter. "I'm still in a state of shock in many ways. The injustice of it all is mind-boggling."
With little evidence that his efforts to reinvent himself have improved his image, Blagojevich is launching a tour to promote his memoir, "The Governor." Officially released Tuesday, the 259-page account details his hardscrabble upbringing on the city's Northwest Side and describes how he is coping (or not) with one of the most sweeping public-corruption indictments in state history.
He was arrested in December and charged with allegedly running state government as a racket and scheming to enrich himself by selling everything from his office's powers to an appointment to the U.S. Senate.
In the book and in person, he acknowledges his concerns about going to prison as members of his inner circle have been convicted and begun cooperating with prosecutors. "Sometimes, in the wee small hours of the night, the fear creeps in," he told the Tribune. "It's always sort of there in the back of your mind, a little weight that never leaves."
The book hints at Blagojevich's upcoming criminal defense by reiterating his long-held position that he has been victimized by political enemies and "unethical" prosecutors. He also wistfully writes about future political ambitions and resurrecting his career, though the state legislature has barred him from holding office again in Illinois.
"Rod Blagojevich continues to be a disgrace and an embarrassment to the people of the State of Illinois," said Terry Ekl, attorney for Blagojevich's former chief of staff, John Harris, who recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges and plans to testify against his old boss. "There's no reason to believe anything that either comes out of his mouth or is contained in his book."
The book's objective, first and foremost, is to protest his innocence and tell the people of Illinois -- and, by extension, his potential jury pool -- how much he loves them. It's an effort the ex-governor continued on the streets of New York Tuesday as he posed for pictures with tourists, chatted up a Bears fan about Jay Cutler's arm and made small talk with "Early Show" substitute co-anchor Debbye Turner Bell.
Bell mentioned she was familiar with his past campaigns because she used to work in St. Louis. Blagojevich interrupted her. "None of this stuff [about me] is true, by the way," he said.
Blagojevich acknowledges an obsessive need to proclaim his innocence -- even to people who don't particularly care about it. "You want to shout from the mountaintop that it ain't so," he said. "I don't have a mountaintop, so I did the next best thing and wrote a book."
If nothing else, the memoir demonstrates the ex-governor's appreciation of famous figures, both real and fictional. He likens himself to, among others, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, Henry V and the mythical Icarus. He also makes references to boxer Jake LaMotta, George Bailey from "It's a Wonderful Life" and a baptism scene in "The Godfather."
With this affection for pop culture, Blagojevich has tried to remake his image. He has turned himself into a jester-for-hire, an eager entertainer desperate to pay his bills and make his audience forget the past year's humiliations. "The book was therapeutic because it gave me something to work on," he said. "Now I can focus on other work opportunities to support my family and build a new career in places that I didn't expect I would be."
Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, who made about $270,000 combined in 2008, are now both unemployed. With a heavily mortgaged house on the Northwest Side and two daughters in private school, they depend upon appearance fees and other celebrity-related income to help pay the bills. (His campaign fund is paying for his criminal defense.)
But the former governor insists he has his limits. He has turned down offers to drive a race car and play outfield for a minor-league baseball team. He declined an opportunity to appear on an HBO series about a Nevada brothel. "I only accept things that are consistent with my message," he said.
Whether the public eventually accepts that message remains to be seen. As Blagojevich defended himself on the "Today" show Tuesday, Tom McLean of Orland Park groaned as he watched the interview on TV screens set up outside the studio.
"It's an embarrassment," said McLean, vacationing in New York. "If you travel anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world, you have to hear about this guy."