On Eve of Prison, Blagojevich Keeps Talking, but Some Tune Out


blagojevichRod R. Blagojevich stepped into his front yard on Wednesday for a last goodbye.

As always, the cameras rolled. Helicopters whirred. Curiosity seekers and supporters crushed in, delivering banners with messages like “Only God is Perfect.” Tears fell.

But much of Chicago, which had been living with Mr. Blagojevich’s tale for years, seemed to shrug. What began in 2008 with his stunning, predawn arrest at this very house, amid allegations that he had tried to trade or sell a United States Senate seat, had taken many topsy-turvy detours: his impeachment as governor, his attempt at a star turn on the television talk show circuit and reality TV, the deadlocked jury, the second trial and the anticipated start, on Thursday, of a 14-year prison term.

Around this state, people said they were simply ready to think about something (anything) else – or that they had already stopped pondering Mr. Blagojevich long ago, a few even confiding that they had not realized that he was still around.

“It’s like, good riddance,” Patty Loeffler, 58, said the other day as she caught a bus along Michigan Avenue. “And I’ll be glad when we stop hearing about it.”

Said Michael Benninghoff, 44: “I think we’ve kind of moved on.”

Mr. Blagojevich, known for his tailored suits and trademark puff of dark hair, is a former prosecutor and state and federal lawmaker who once saw himself as a possible presidential candidate. On Thursday, he is expected to arrive at a low-security federal prison near Littleton, Colo., where inmates must give up everything but simple wedding bands and religious medallions, undergo a strip search, don khaki uniforms and prepare to work around the prison for as little as 12 cents an hour.

Now, at 55, he is the fourth Illinois governor in recent memory to be imprisoned, but the arc of his unraveling was anything but ordinary, even by this state’s long tradition of political corruption.

In 2002, Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat, was elected governor on a reform platform – the antidote, his campaign seemed to say, to a Republican governor, George Ryan, who was mired in scandal and would later go to prison. By late 2008, just after Barack Obama won the White House, Mr. Blagojevich, then in his second term, happily found himself assigned by state law to appoint a replacement for Mr. Obama from Illinois in the Senate.

But by then, federal agents had already been recording Mr. Blagojevich’s telephone calls, and swiftly came a slew of corruption charges that the federal prosecutor said would make “Lincoln roll over in his grave.”

The most headline-grabbing of all the ways prosecutors said Mr. Blagojevich tried to make money for official acts: He had, in stunningly salty, crass language caught on the recordings, tried to get a better job, a cabinet post, a big campaign donation in exchange for Mr. Obama’s old Senate seat. He used expletives to describe just how “golden” his opportunity to pick a new senator was.

After two trials, he was convicted on 18 counts. But in the interim, Illinois came to know Mr. Blagojevich, who vehemently professed his innocence and whose lawyers have started an appeal, in a way the state never really had when he ran it. He recited poetry in news conferences. He shared chats with daytime talk show hosts. He performed songs for a neighborhood party. He wrote a memoir. He pitched pistachios in an ad. Until the last few months, he talked and talked and talked.

But if sympathies for Mr. Blagojevich seemed scarce outside of his circle of friends and neighbors in recent days, the same did not hold for his family.

Elected officials – even those who had furiously condemned Mr. Blagojevich’s behavior – expressed deep empathy for his two school-age daughters, who are expected to continue living here in his North Side home after Mr. Blagojevich reports to prison. In recent weeks, Mr. Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, appeared on a television show and tearfully professed her fear that the girls are “going to be totally messed up from this.”

And on Wednesday, she stood beside her husband, tears running down her cheeks, as Mr. Blagojevich spoke of his daughters and asked aloud, “How do you make sense of this, and what is it that you can tell your kids so they can appreciate the magnitude of this calamity?”

Judy Baar Topinka, the state comptroller and a Republican who once ran against Mr. Blagojevich for governor and lost, said, “It kind of breaks my heart.” Still, she said, the legacy of Mr. Blagojevich on the state – and its grim financial situation – will last far longer than his 14-year prison term.

And why, she asked, did he feel the need to give one last public statement rather than leave quietly?

“This is typical Blagojevich – he still in his final hours cannot give up the spotlight,” she said.

At 5:02 p.m. Central Time precisely – a time that assured that Chicago television stations could go with live feeds to the starts of their evening news – Mr. Blagojevich stepped out of his house in a pair of blue jeans and into the waiting throng.

Clutching his wife, he launched into a speech he might have used on the campaign trail, reminding the crowd of his efforts to bring health care to all children, extra health examinations for women, free public transportation for the elderly. He said he took responsibility for things he had said – “political talk” and “horse trades,” as he described them. Then he said he was hopeful for an appeal.

“The law as it stands right now is that I have to go do what I have to go do, and this is the hardest thing that I have ever had to do,” he said.

As he walked away, having spoken for more than 10 minutes, he seemed to be searching for words.

“I’ll see you around,” he said, finally.

{The NY Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}