By Bob Secter and Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune reporters
March 15, 2012
Rod Blagojevich may have a problem with hidden recording devices, but the convicted former governor rarely met a camera he didn't like and that held true even Wednesday with a choreographed-for-TV farewell on the eve of his imprisonment.
Showman to the end, Blagojevich emerged from his Ravenswood Manor bungalow in an appearance timed to catch the top of 5 p.m. newscasts. He launched into a campaign-style monologue reciting a laundry list of accomplishments and insisting he never intentionally broke the law.
"I believe I always, always thought about what was right for the people," said Blagojevich as his wife, Patti, stood by his side and teared up.
Blagojevich, due to begin a 14-year sentence for corruption Thursday at a federal prison in Colorado, spoke for 10 minutes, interrupted only by shouts of encouragement from hundreds of well-wishers and gawkers gathered on his lawn along with TV crews.
He then mingled for more than a half-hour, signing autographs on everything from an ATM receipt to an M&M wrapper and ignoring his 8-year-old daughter, Annie, as she tapped on his elbow and pleaded: "Come on. You've signed enough, Daddy."
Given the abundance of ex-Illinois governors sent to prison, it may come as a surprise that there appears to be no set protocol for their exit from public view. George Ryan went defiantly, declaring that he had "a clear conscience" and would continue a fight to clear his name.
Dan Walker said nothing, as did Otto Kerner before him, though Kerner made some sort of quiet statement by showing up at the gate of a federal prison in Kentucky in a Mercedes and wearing a silk suit.
During his long descent from public grace, Blagojevich has put on display a number of conflicting personas. He has sounded indignant, outraged, jocular, self-deprecating or manic. Testifying in his defense last year, Blagojevich struck a humble tone.
And in December, minutes before U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced him for trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat and other corrupt acts, Blagojevich sounded contrite. For the first time, he publicly took responsibility for letting down his family and his constituents.
On Wednesday it was vintage campaign-stump Blagojevich. He thanked supporters for their prayers and support. He said he was "honored" that voters twice elected him governor and, before that, had sent him to house seats in Washington and Springfield.
Then he walked through a list of programs he championed: health care coverage for middle-income children, free mammograms and pap smears, and free transit rides for seniors.
"People got mad over that. I never understood that," said Blagojevich, who was captured on a government wiretap complaining about voters who failed to appreciate that he had given "your grandmother a free (expletive) ride on a bus" and "your (expletive) baby a chance to have health care."
Blagojevich long has had a flair for seeking — and getting — attention from the media. There was no letup after he was booted from office by lawmakers and spent 2 1/2 years battling corruption charges before he was convicted in June.
He did the late-night talk show circuit, had a turn on a Donald Trump reality series, wrote a book, hosted a radio gabfest, starred in a commercial for pistachios and impersonated Elvis Presley.
With Blagojevich's prison report date approaching, his publicist, Glenn Selig, advised media outlets that the former governor planned to make a statement before his departure. Selig timed it perfectly for maximum live TV exposure and followed that up Wednesday by tweeting warnings as Blagojevich was about to leave his house.
"The governor never memorizes," Selig said of Blagojevich, who prides himself on an ability to memorize long passages from famous books and speeches. "He speaks extemporaneously. He will speak from the heart."
The buildup had its desired effect. Hours before Blagojevich was to speak, at least 15 TV vans were parked outside his home as news crews and photographers milled on the parkway amid a forest of tripods and cameras.
Twice, rumors that Blagojevich had stepped out a back door sent the mob darting like a school of fish. "Instead of everybody running, why don't we have some lookouts?" said an exasperated cameraman after jogging to the alley for a second time.
Handmade banners hung from the railing on the family porch, reading "THANKS MR GOVERNOR WE WILL PRAY," surrounded by scribbled signatures from supporters. A smaller sign read, "leniency for Gov Rod!!! Call the whitehouse 1-202-456-1111."
A steady stream of pedestrians, enjoying the summerlike day, paused to watch.
Some, like Will Ross, were drawn by the atmosphere, not endearment for Blagojevich. "Really, if they were filming that awful 'Transformers' movie today, we would probably be watching that. It's something to see," said Ross. "It's like a public execution."
However, Connie Wojdyla, Blagojevich's neighbor, said she was there to show support for someone who has "done a lot of good, and he's a good person." Wojdyla took credit for making the banners praising Blagojevich.
"We didn't ask. He doesn't mind," she explained. "He wants us to."
Blagojevich was trailed by a camera crew as he walked out of his house to address the throng. One of his lawyers said they were filming a personal documentary, but the Blagojeviches weren't sure what they were going to do with it.
When Blagojevich spoke, he described his situation as a "calamity."
"I have to confess," he said. "There are times when I just want to give up, but then I look into the eyes of my daughters ... and I think that is not what a father is supposed to do. You are supposed to show them you fight through adversity."
He also expressed confidence that an appeal of his conviction would succeed. "I still believe this is America," he said. "...That the truth ultimately will prevail, that right makes might and that this, as bad as it is, is the beginning of another part of a long and hard journey that will only get worse before it gets better, but that this is not over."
"I'll see you around," he concluded before plowing into the crowd to shake hands and sign autographs.
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed.
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