Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich is in prison, but a new book by the Chicago Sun-Times reporter who covered his trials recounts the high-profile case, and provides some intriguing new revelations. Natasha Korecki joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Read an excerpt from Only in Chicago below:
Chapter Fifteen: “Blago has left the balcony”
The buzzing started early that day.
Helicopters chopped furiously at the air over an otherwise quiet Northwest Side neighborhood on this March 2012 afternoon in Chicago that was pushing 80 degrees. Maybe it was that record warmth that drew so many people to 2934 W. Sunnyside. It was Rod Blagojevich’s final night of freedom. The Ravenswood Manor home where Blagojevich oddly spent so much of his time as governor, the place where FBI agents tapped his phone and then arrested Blagojevich, would once again hold some public significance.
For Blagojevich’s last meal at home on that Wednesday night, Patti cooked a spaghetti dinner, using Blagojevich’s late mother’s recipe. “I’m going to eat so much spaghetti I won’t need breakfast,” he said.
For his youngest daughter, Annie, Blagojevich left as a memento two dolls that have the capability to play back recorded messages. According to someone close to the family, one of the dolls has Blagojevich’s voice saying, “Hi Annie, Daddy loves you.”
On this day, staring at 14 years in prison, the former governor promised he’d talk publicly one last time the night before his departure. As he had in the past, he timed his remarks for 5:02 pm—correctly predicting that TV channels would carry it live.
It promised to be his last public statement for perhaps more than a decade. His term loomed at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, a low-security federal prison in Denver’s southwest suburbs. A judge had recommended he enter a substance abuse program that would help shave time off his sentence. Still, Blagojevich faced the prospect of not getting out of prison until he turned 67.
The closer the hour neared 5:00 pm, the more his front yard transformed into some kind of outrageous circus of media and misfits. With less than two hours before his statement, the crowd began to swell. Giant TV antennae protruded above treetops on side streets. Chicago police squad cars circled the neighborhood and eventually parked outside his home.
A banner hanging from the railing of the Blagojevich home read, “Thanks, Mr. Governor. We will pray.” Another cardboard sign taped to the railing read, “Good luck, Mr. Rod. Your a good man and we know you got cheated. Never give up and keep the faith.”
In the midst of this, Blagojevich left his home briefly for an outing with Annie. Reporters and photographers converged on them as they made their way to their car. When they returned, there was an even bigger crowd of reporters that closed in as dad and daughter tried to snake their way back to their home. His hand on his daughter, Blagojevich smiled but wouldn’t give interviews “Ask questions later!” shouted Annie, holding a pink bag that had “Sweet and Sassy” on it, to the excited crowd. Blagojevich bent toward his daughter excitedly.
“That’s it, excellent job!” Blagojevich told her as they walked inside: “That’s my girl!”
While they were inside, the crowd outside grew and grew. A group of people carrying FREE BLAGO signs, and poster boards with the word BLAGO on one and JEVICH on another, seemed to show up around the same time. Dads put children on their shoulders. Moms pushing strollers stopped for a peek.
One gentleman who fancied himself “security”—though he clearly wasn’t—announced he wanted supporters to hold hands and form a human wall that the media could not cross. He offered to “deputize” anyone who would step forward and help Blagojevich talk to the pubic with “some dignity.”
“Let’s help Rod Blagojevich take back the sidewalk!” he yelled. People did step up and hold hands, raising tensions between the members of the public and the members of media that had been building for the last hour.
When Blagojevich and Patti finally emerged from their home, the crowd cheered. The couple walked down the balcony and into the thick of the crowd, heading toward cameras stationed at the far end of the front lawn. The crowd inched along with the Blagojeviches, shouting questions. Through a tangle of camera wires, video camera people walked backwards, as did some supporters and reporters. The couple stopped at the microphones where another horde of people was set up. The first crowd kept moving, even though there was no place to go. People trampled each other, stepping on each other’s feet, knocking some off balance. It was a raucous scene, if not dangerous with such a mix of people, personalities, and energy crammed onto the former governor's front lawn.
Cindy Hicks, 53, who said she lived in the neighborhood, said she thought Blagojevich would face a tough psychological challenge being locked up, but she added, “He’s charming enough that I’m sure he’ll make friends in there.”
Gloria Leverence, 70, who was there to hear the former governor speak, said she came to see “history.” She said she had asked her grandchildren to come, but they told her she was “crazy.” Leverence also said she felt like the ex-governor needed her support.
"I have three grandchildren who have free health care because of him,” Leverence said. “I liked riding the bus for free for all these years.... I don’t think he deserved what he got.… He didn’t kill anyone.”
“If he was found guilty, he was probably guilty,” said Elizabeth Sage, 31, who was out for a stroll with her 9-month old son and stopped to watch. “I’m glad to see an end to the circus, but as soon as he’s gone, another circus will start— but hopefully just not around here.”
With dozens of photographers, video cameras, and supporters all around him, Blagojevich slung his arm around his wife. His fingernails appearing chewed on, Blagojevich held on to Patti through his 12-minute statement, squeezing her shoulder tightly at times. He bid adieu to Illinois, talking about “a dark and hard journey” that would take him thousands of miles from his family.
“How do you make sense of all this? What do you tell your children when calamity strikes and hardship comes? What do you do when disaster hits your family, and you leave behind your children and your wife?” Blagojevich asked. “Tomorrow, saying goodbye to Patti and my kids will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve been putting off the thought about what that’s going to be like. I can’t even think about it now.”
As Blagojevich spoke, a man carrying an American flag tried to break through a gap, knocking others off balance as he attempted to find space where there was none. He kept yelling, “Governor! Governor!"
A deeply tanned, blonde newswoman swore at him, telling him to get back.
“Stop it! He’s not going to take it!” she snapped.
“I have to confess,” Blagojevich went on with his speech. “There are times that I want to give up.”
Meanwhile, the man in the crowd didn't relent. He pushed and shoved his way closer to Blagojevich and eventually draped an American flag over the former governor and Patti.
“Governor! Esteban!” the man said, identifying himself. “See, he took it. He took it.”
Blagojevich was talking at the moment the flag draped onto them. He and Patti seemed startled and looked back at their shoulders. Someone quickly snapped it off of them.
“It has been, walking through life with Patti, a most gracious journey,” Blagojevich went on. “And you know when she took her vow when we were married and she said through good times and bad, neither one of us could ever have imagined it would be like this. And here’s been Patti, standing strong, and standing tall.”
Patti, wearing a thin layer of makeup and dressed simply in a purple shirt and blue jeans, broke down. She passed her hand over her eyes to wipe away tears that she could no longer blink back.
His remarks veered into vintage Blagojevich, again bringing up the All-Kids insurance program, free mass-transit rides for senior citizens, and the fact that he never raised the income tax.
“I got bruised and battered and bloodied, but we were able to get those done,” he said. Blagojevich again called his words on tape “political talk” and “horse-trading”—a characterization that prosecutors repeatedly took issue with.
“I believed I was on the right side of the law,” he said. “The decision went against me.”
For a moment in the statement, Blagojevich seemed to second-guess his actions over the preceding three years. The TV appearances, the news conferences that thumbed a nose at prosecutors—maybe they weren’t such a good idea after all.
“Maybe one of the lessons of this whole story is that you got to be maybe a little bit more humble. You can never have enough humility,” he said. “Maybe I could have had more of that.”
Within minutes of these words leaving his lips, Blagojevich walked away from microphones and began signing autographs. As he made his way back to his house, he pointed to people in the crowd. Shook hands. Punched his fist in the air.
“Rod, will you still give speeches from prison?” one young man shouted, laughing. Across the crowd, a school-aged boy also laughed and his father scolded him, “It's not a joking matter.”
“Hey, I got on three different [TV] stations,” the boy said proudly. “That’s pretty good.”
Back on his balcony, Blagojevich sometimes crouched through the iron bars to reach people or sign autographs. The more he signed, the more random items people passed to him. He refused nothing: Posters, papers, school notebooks, a Girl Scout cookie box, T-shirts, receipts, hats. One person handed him a CTA card. Another handed up a torn, yellow M&Ms wrapper.
“Oh that’s so nice of him! Oh, look, he’s signing that too. That’s so nice of him!” one woman exclaimed. As if he was on stage, Blagojevich picked up a young girl out of the crowd and raised her over the bars onto the balcony with him. She beamed. He did the same later with at least two other kids.
Through all of this, Annie Blagojevich came outside three times trying to lure her father back into the house for the last night he’d spend there. She asked him to stop signing autographs. He’d look to her, then to the crowd.
He couldn't help himself. He stayed outside.
Celebrity washed over Rod Blagojevich and however minor it was, he reveled in it. The strange chapter in Chicago political history ended with Blagojevich acting more like a preening rock star than a disgraced politician heading off to prison. He ignored the questions from the usual shouting print reporters but began giving mini-interviews to Spanish TV stations. In Spanish, he ticked off the same political stump talk he used to give in English. The reporters ate it up.
Apparently running out of words he knew in the foreign language, he shouted: “Viva Chivas!” a reference to a revered futbol club in Mexico. And he shouted another common refrain: “Si se puede!” A woman in the scrum yelled back: “Si se puede! SI SE PUEDE!!”
The ridiculousness factor reached its height.
If Blagojevich’s actions were bizarre for a man heading to prison, they were arguably eclipsed by those of well-wishers showering adoration onto a convicted felon, begging for his autograph. Not to mention the media, which flooded the neighborhood with helicopters, reporters, and equipment, helping to create the spectacle, then bringing it live to their audience.
As he finally closed out his interaction with the crowd, Blagojevich stretched hard over his balcony, balancing on the tops of his thighs, his feet in the air, as he reached out to people below. He swept the tops of their hands with his fingertips.
With the ex-governor inside, the crowd thinned and some of the news media retreated.
It was then that a Sun-Times reporter, Stefano Esposito, found something on the ground.
“I saw this get passed up to him,” he said. It was the yellow M&Ms wrapper. In black ink over the torn paper, a signature was scrawled: Rod R. Blagojevich.
The next day, Blagojevich left early for Colorado and the media again was on top of him. Reporters bought tickets and flew on the same flight. They filmed the ex-governor in the airport going through security. They filmed his car as it drove on the highway toward the prison. The prison wasn’t quite ready for him and asked him to come back a little later, his lawyer said. They drove to get lunch and the media followed, launching all kinds of conspiracy theories about how Blagojevich wasn’t really ready to start doing his time.
Eventually, Blagojevich did make it to the inside. Aaron Goldstein and Shelly Sorosky escorted their client all the way there. Then they left. The prison door shut.
The silence was likely deafening.
Reprinted with permission from Only In Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich scandal engulfed Illinois; embroiled Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Jesse Jackson, Jr.; and enthralled the nation, by Natasha Korecki, Agate Digital, September 2012.