Tears of a Clown: Blagojevich Takes the Stand

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Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich arrives at federal court in Chicago for his corruption trial Wednesday, May 26, 2011

After giving his wife Patti a quick peck on the cheek, Rod Blagojevich walked over to the witness stand at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in Chicago and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth before the jury. Then he quickly introduced himself to those who would decide his fate. "I'm Rod Blagojevich. I used to be the governor ... I've waited two and a half years to be here to get my side of the story out. It's very liberating to answer all of your questions."

Before entering the courtroom on Thursday, May 26, Blagojevich, 54, had made a predictable scene outside, literally flexing his muscle by showing off his biceps to the waiting reporters, satisfying — for a moment — their quest for more details on one of America's most controversial political clowns. Then, taking his place at the witness stand — a spot he never appeared in at his previous, abortive trial for corruption — Blagojevich began a meandering testimony that had all the melodrama and filigree of a Lifetime movie. It began with his childhood and moved to his college years and beyond in a five-hour performance, one that was not finished by the time the court adjourned for the day. The intricacies were as crosshatched as the tie he wore.

On trial for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois that was vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected President in November 2008, Blagojevich — who was originally arrested Dec. 9, 2008 — detailed a life story that would have sounded hapless and comical had he not been elected governor of Illinois — all the while name-dropping everyone from former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to Donald Trump, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David and various actors and actresses and other celebrities.

Blagojevich joked about flunking drafting class in high school, his Little League baseball career that culminated in just one hit in 12 at bats, his failed dreams of playing Major League Baseball or in the National Basketball Association. He boasted of his love of reading volume after volume of the World Encyclopedia and Shakespeare — and then admitted to almost flunking out of law school several times. He said he worked as a shoeshine boy at the age of 9, labored on the Alaskan pipeline, ran deliveries for a pizza parlor and hauled beef at a meatpacking plant in Philadelphia. Blagojevich joked about loving to run mile after mile because he liked to stay in shape and had a "vain quality." And then he showed off his finish time at his first marathon, in 1984: 2 hr. 55 min. 30 sec. He admitted he was a disco-era guy who loved wearing polyester à la Saturday Night Fever while attending Northwestern University in the 1970s.

Blagojevich's testimony was littered with mentions of some 50 celebrities — not all contemporaries. He cited historical figures like George Washington, who "taught me not to tell a lie." Grinning, Blagojevich joked about having a "man crush on Alexander Hamilton." Then he noted one of his odd jobs, at a gym in Malibu, Calif., where he saw the likes of Farrah Fawcett, Olivia Newton-John and Michael Landon.

And all of this while testifying in his own defense. His attorney Aaron Goldstein seemed to encourage him to admit to his foolishness. "Are you still in [the disco] era when it comes to hair?" Goldstein asked. Blagojevich replied, "Those habits start early in life, and that hasn't changed." Indeed, his helmet of Presley-like hair, rivaled only by Donald Trump's, seemed to be assiduously preserved.

Everything the ex-governor said seemed to dovetail with his defense strategy in his previous trial — which led to a hung jury and the federal government's decision to not pursue charges against his co-defendent, his elder brother Robert. The core of that strategy was that Rod Blagojevich liked to talk a good game but was not competent or capable enough to carry out any of his intentions, as corrupt as they may have sounded.

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