It's not where you start, but where you finish

On eve of sentence, judge takes issue as lawyers for Blagojevich cry humble beginnings

There were two Judge Zagels in the cavernous ceremonial federal courtroom on the 25th floor, each looking down on upon one desperate Rod Blagojevich.

One was the Zagel on the wall, a portrait along with dozens of other such portraits of black-robed federal judges decorating those paneled walls. The Zagel on the wall had dark hair and leaned slightly to his left. This Zagel was almost smiling, with a trace of amusement around the eyes.

But the Zagel on the bench all day Tuesday — the flesh-and-blood U.S. District Judge James Zagel — had white hair.


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He looked out over a courtroom bathed in federal fluorescent. This Judge Zagel was not smiling. And he was not amused.

On Wednesday, when Zagel drops the federal hammer on the former governor of Illinois and sentences him to prison, I don't think there will be any trace of amusement on his face.

Tuesday's news was about the emotion, about the letters Blagojevich's wife Patti and daughter Amy sent to Zagel, begging for mercy. They were heartbreaking. And then we'll be drawn into Wednesday's drama, Blagojevich standing before the judge, and whether he'll be full of remorse, whether he'll sob.

Happily, there are no TV cameras in the federal courtroom, so participants aren't tempted to turn the proceedings into a reality show. We've already been there: Patti eating jungle bugs in Costa Rica, Rod enduring the televised humiliations of Donald Trump.

But Tuesday wasn't really all that dramatic. On Tuesday the attitude was one of great formality and patience, as Zagel allowed the defense lawyers to plead leniency for the man I call Gov. Dead Meat, the child of the Chicago machine who was convicted of more than a dozen corruption counts, including trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash and the shakedown of a children's hospital.

Dead Meat's lawyers haven't had it easy. They haven't really caught a break since Dead Meat was arrested by the FBI three years ago, when he thought the people knocking on his bungalow door had been sent as a practical joke by his buddy, former State Sen. James DeLeo, D-How You Doin'?

And I don't think he caught a break Tuesday, unless you count Zagel saying that while 30 to life would be the correct calculation for Dead Meat's crimes, it wasn't "appropriate" in this case.

So less than 30?

There was a hint of a darker future when one of Blagojevich's lawyers, Carolyn Gurland, discussed her client's past. She said he became a good governor even though his life as a child of Serbian immigrants had not been easy.

"Stop for a moment," Zagel said at her mention of the immigrant experience. "I have a question and I really don't understand it."

What bothered Zagel was the probation officer's presentencing report, a line about immigrants. Zagel said Blagojevich was quoted as saying "he believes he was a good governor, but explained that he came from nothing."

It was the "he came from nothing" line that bothered Zagel.

"He comes from an immigrant family," Zagel said of Blagojevich, "and through hard work, they raised and educated two accomplished sons. But he says he came from nothing. Why is this nothing?"

The judge paused and looked directly at Blagojevich.

"I don't understand it. This is the backbone of America. This is the classic American story."

Zagel's late father, Samuel, emigrated from Warsaw to Chicago in 1915 and lived to see his son graduate from the University of Chicago and then Harvard Law. Judge Zagel would never say that his parents came from nothing.

"I assume it (the 'I came from nothing' line) is inadvertent," Zagel said, and Gurland assured him it was. But you weren't there to see what was in his eyes. I saw it, and Blagojevich certainly saw it.

And I thought of how hard Blagojevich's parents worked to raise a son who became governor, a son who talked about selling that "bleepin' golden" Senate seat, a son who spent more than $400,000 on clothes for himself and his wife. A hardworking man like Blagojevich's dad wouldn't be able to get his mind around that sum for clothes. I know my immigrant father would have been horrified at such excess, and I assume that Zagel's father was similarly grounded.

It's that lack of depth about Dead Meat that came clear in both trials, the first one that ended in that deadlocked jury and the second one that ended with the convictions. It's not illegal to be shallow and worry about clothes. If it were, then every TV game show host in America would be doing serious time.

Soon, Dead Meat will learn that federal inmates don't deal in $15,000 suits. Instead, they deal in vacuum-sealed pouches of tuna, which I'm told is currency in federal prison, since the weight lifters demand protein and tuna is available in prison commissaries. But that comes later.

For Wednesday, Dead Meat will stand and have his say before Zagel. And then he will hear what Zagel has to say.

I've got a feeling it's the kind of thing that turns a man's hair white.

jskass@tribune.com

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