Rod Blagojevich gave what amounted to the campaign speech of his life Thursday directed at just 12 voters -- members of the jury that will decide whether he misused his powers as governor.
And like the master politician he was for so long, Blagojevich gave a glib and engaging performance, presenting himself as the humble and self-effacing son of immigrants who rose from a gritty Northwest Side neighborhood to the political heights.
"I'm Rod Blagojevich , I used to be your governor, and I'm here today to tell you the truth," Blagojevich opened from the witness stand before launching into a version of his life story so laden with detail that it might thrill the most ardent trivia buff.
For more than five hours, an animated Blagojevich looked squarely at jurors as he talked about everything from his failings at Little League to his onetime penchant for polyester disco wear to the 2-hour, 55-minute, 30-second time he turned in for his first marathon. He told the jury it would nearly have been a world record had it been run eight decades earlier.
He also touched on the early years of a political career that crashed in the fall of 2008, when he was allegedly recorded extorting campaign donors and trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich didn't get to that crucial turn in his narrative by the time court adjourned, but he will be back on the stand Friday.
His testimony was also marked by occasional tears and attempts at humor, which did not appear to elicit much reaction from jurors. There were also apologies and denials. And there was a sense that one of the most controversial politicians in state history finally had his back against the wall.
Testifying was a step Blagojevich did not take last summer, when a jury was only able to convict him on one count of lying to the FBI, deadlocking on 23 other criminal counts and leading to the current retrial. This time around, Blagojevich decided to make his own case, spending his first hour on the stand talking about his roots and choking up as he discussed his hard-working parents.
"It gives you a certain sense of values and certain sense of helping others," Blagojevich said. "I think I picked up my dad's propensity to dream. ... I got a chance to be governor of the fifth-biggest state in America, and I always thought my parents were part of that, helping from heaven."
The purpose was to portray a softer vision of Blagojevich for jurors than the foul-mouthed, scheming politician they have heard on government wiretaps, the one who describes the Senate seat as "(expletive) golden" and hurls insults at political rivals.
"I'd like to apologize to the women and men for those terrible words," Blagojevich testified. "When I hear myself on tape swearing like that, I'm an effing jerk and I apologize for that."
Some of the interaction between Blagojevich and his lawyer, Aaron Goldstein, had a decidedly scripted flavor, such as when the former governor was asked how he did playing baseball as a kid.
"One for 12 that year," Blagojevich said of his one year in Little League, apparently spent mostly on the bench. "I'll never forget it was a single between the shortstop and third baseman."
And there were confessional moments as well. Blagojevich acknowledged he flunked the bar exam the first time he took it and that he doesn't jog for his health. "I have a vain quality," he said. "There's a certain narcissism."
As a kid, Blagojevich said, he would sit for hours reading World Book encyclopedias, memorizing the order of U.S. presidents. He was fascinated by historical figures such as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, a president whose love of boxing as a young man drove Blagojevich to the sport.
After high school, Blagojevich said, he spent college time in Florida and at Northwestern University in Evanston, where he said he felt out of place.
"Some of what I am, deep down there are certain insecurities," Blagojevich said. "I always felt that these kids at Northwestern, they came from wealthier families and better schools. I always felt they were smarter than me."
It was his obsession with reading history books that led Blagojevich to almost flunk out of law school at Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif., he said, not time spent on the beach as he has joked in the past.
"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," he offered.
The narrative was packed with name-dropping of famous people Blagojevich said he's met, from Donald Trump to "Seinfeld" creator Larry David to George Steinbrenner.
Blagojevich became most emotional discussing his wife, whom he met in 1988. That discussion led the former governor to tear up on the stand as he looked across the courtroom toward Patti Blagojevich , who began crying herself.
It was that relationship that led Blagojevich to politics, he said, because Patti's father is Chicago Ald. Richard Mell. Blagojevich said he began doing campaign work for Mell's political organization to please him and because "I'd have a better shot with Patti."
After describing his ascension through the state Legislature and Congress, Blagojevich finally turned to his time as governor and some of the specific allegations against him.
One was leveled by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. just Wednesday, when the congressman told the jury that Blagojevich had spoken in "classic Elvis fashion" when he linked Jackson's failed attempt to get a state job for Jackson's wife to a failure to give the then-governor $25,000 in campaign money.
"I have no recollection that he ever, ever talked to me ever" about it, Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich also denied trying to shake down Rahm Emanuel for a campaign donation. The Chicago mayor and former congressman also testified Wednesday that he wasn't aware of any such attempt. Blagojevich said he never directed staffers to hold up a grant for a school in Emanuel's congressional district to try to force Emanuel's brother, a Hollywood talent agent, to hold a fundraiser for him.
Another in the litany of Blagojevich denials dealt with an allegation leveled by former chief of staff Alonzo "Lon" Monk, who testified that he, the then-governor, and fundraisers Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Chris Kelly plotted to make money from Blagojevich 's time in office. One such meeting took place in California, where Rezko wrote up moneymaking ideas on an easel, Monk had said.
"I never had a meeting in California or anywhere where I talked about how I might make money off of state action with those guys. Ever. Never," Blagojevich said emphatically.
But through it all, Blagojevich never forgot who his target audience was, often talking with his hands and turning to face the jury sitting just feet away. At one point, one of them sneezed when Blagojevich was in midsentence.
"God bless you," he stopped to say.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun