Rod Blagojevich Still Wants Your Vote

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Steve Fenn / ABC / AP

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich speaks with Joy Behar on The View on Sept. 9, 2009

Rod Blagojevich is still campaigning. Despite his fall into the seventh circle of ignominy — perhaps you heard he was impeached as Illinois governor and faces federal corruption charges after allegedly auctioning off Barack Obama's empty U.S. Senate seat — Blagojevich is passing a crystalline afternoon pressing the flesh at a café near his home on Chicago's northwest side, eager to dispel the notion that he's a pariah. In part because Blagojevich is a very good politician, the reception is warmer than you might expect. He embraces an elderly supporter, quizzes a high school track team about its choice of running shoes (these days he clocks seven miles in under an hour) and assures tourists from Detroit that he's "innocent of all charges."

Of course, not everyone is charmed. A honking car slows near our table, and when the window rolls down, a teenager shouts, "F___ you!" For just a moment, the former governor looks sheepish. "I thought that was [going to be] a positive one."

In the court of public opinion, rehabilitation generally starts with remorse. But since being hauled out of his home in handcuffs on Dec. 9, Blagojevich has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. As the days lurch toward a June 2010 trial, he's trying a new tack that happens to dovetail nicely with his love of the spotlight: fighting the allegations with sheer ubiquity. His new martyr-toned memoir, The Governor, and its attendant media blitz have been balletic exercises in the deflection of blame, and recent reports that he'll appear on the upcoming season of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice suggest that he won't start offering apologies anytime soon.

This lack of contrition has led armchair psychologists, and not a few former colleagues, to label Blagojevich a megalomaniac, a textbook narcissist, a poster boy for America's coarse and craven political culture. Blagojevich calls himself a victim — with one caveat. "If I'm lying to you," he says, "then I'm a sociopath."

Radio Player
Blagojevich's aptitude for politics and self-promotion is on display every Sunday, when he hosts a raucous, rant-heavy radio show for an AM station in Chicago's Loop. As a chief executive, Blagojevich, 52, earned a checkered reputation, but over the airwaves his gifts are self-evident. Clad in a burgundy polo shirt, his signature hair standing at attention, he is focused, energized and relentlessly on message, fusing ward-style populism with a preacher's rhythmic cadences as he blasts the cabal of politicians responsible for his ouster. Not since Holden Caulfield has the word phony gotten such a workout.

During breaks, he jots notes on index cards and confers with his advisers: Josh Weiss, a baby-faced 25-year-old producer, and Dan Colla, a burly, affable childhood friend who is a dead ringer for the male model Fabio. After a sympathetic caller declares that the governor's staunchest political foes — including Illinois house speaker Mike Madigan, Governor Pat Quinn and state senate president John Cullerton — deserve to be pelted with rotten fruit, Blagojevich urges would-be assailants to aim for the head. Within a few mind-bending minutes, he slams Quinn's tax policies, speculates about the percentage of politicians who cheat on their wives and admonishes listeners to brush their teeth and to avoid the scourge of video poker. When all 10 buttons on the call dashboard flicker, he thrusts 10 fingers above his head in triumph.

Hearing Blagojevich sermonize about corrupt politicians strikes plenty of people as the height of chutzpah. But Blagojevich is a creature of his times, the purest embodiment of a culture in which scorn is just another form of attention. And few people are as capable of smiling their way through caustic interviews and brutal daily encounters. Blagojevich, a former Golden Gloves boxer, seems convinced — perhaps by the fans who still snap up his bobblehead dolls on eBay or stop him on the street to pose for pictures — that he can brawl his way back to respectability. "When the facts come out, the people will get it right," he says. "I've always trusted the people's good sense, and I've never lost an election."

Still, he doesn't make it easy on himself. In April, Blagojevich volunteered for the NBC reality show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! When a federal judge squelched the idea, Blagojevich sent his wife Patti to gobble tarantulas instead. Later, in the summer, the fervent Elvis Presley fan made headlines for belting out the King's "Treat Me Nice" at a Chicago block party. "It was unbelievable," says Tom Duff, president of the post-production company that hired him for the gig. "This guy was our governor, and he's turning up his collar and singing Elvis on our dock." In another wink to the looming charges, Blagojevich appeared onstage in June at "Rod Blagojevich Superstar," a Second City comedy production that lampooned his antics. "His one specific critique of the show was that the prop hairbrush I used was too small," says Joey Bland, the 31-year-old actor who played Blagojevich, alluding to the former governor's immaculate coif. Bland recalls that Blagojevich was "unbelievably civil, nice almost to the point that we wondered, You know this isn't positive, right?"

A Flickering Dream
Not long ago, Blagojevich's reviews were mostly glowing. The first Democratic governor in Illinois in a generation, he had charisma, connections, deep coffers and a Horatio Alger–type bio. "You have to remember, a lot of people thought that Rod Blagojevich had a very good shot at becoming President of the United States," says Mike Jacobs, a state senator from Rock Island, Ill., and a former friend. "I know that sounds comical today."

The ease with which Blagojevich climbed the political ladder — and his upbringing in the back-scratching, wheel-greasing vortex of Chicago politics, where more than 1,500 people have been convicted of public corruption since 1970 — may explain why Blagojevich somehow considers dangling a U.S. Senate seat "routine." Even today, the comeback he's attempting to engineer — he told TIME he is "not ruling out the possibility" of a return to politics — is being driven in part by dollars. "We're in debt because I was an honest governor," he says. "O.K.? And now I don't have job prospects. This is among the things that are upside-down. If I ever do this again, I'm going to make sure I take care of my family financially."

Cloudy future aside, Blagojevich has a keen sense of the past. At the press conference following his impeachment, he bewildered observers by reciting a passage from Rudyard Kipling's poem "If," and his memoir is sprinkled with references to the giants of history — from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to Winston Churchill — and personal comparisons to figures as varied as Icarus and Martha Stewart. During an interview with TIME, he rattled off a passage from Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech at the Sorbonne in 1910, delivering the punch lines with a showman's flourish. For a self-described student of great men, an exodus to "the political wilderness" has afforded a chance to contemplate the perils of the club. "It's almost like, if you're going to do good things for people, Providence ordains that you have to pay a certain price," he says. "I'm still blessed, even through this nightmare. I have lived the American dream."