For those of us who have sat in the Blagojevich courtroom every day of the first trial and the retrial, Blagojevich taking the stand was the day we had been waiting for.
On most mornings pretrial, we have seen a friendly, smiling Rod Blagojevich who only recently stopped schmoozing with reporters before he entered the courtroom (admonished by the marshals I am told). But on the morning of May 27, day 22 of the retrial, the former Governor looked as serious as a heart attack.
As we sat and waited for Judge Zagel, Blagojevich was fidgety, touching and retouching a big binder in front of him at the defense table. He kept straightening his tie (beautiful, by the way, black and silver – maybe Hermes?). He straightened his tie so many times that I tweeted “If he straightens his tie one more time his head will pop off his shoulders.
Judge Zagel finally appears and then promptly calls for a 10 minute recess. The defense attorneys are huddled near their table, deep in conversation.
Zagel is back. Aaron Goldstein calls Rod Blagojevich. He stands, kisses Patti and takes his seat at the witness stand.
“I’m Rod Blagojevich. I used to be your governor. I’m here to tell the truth. I’ve waited two and half years to be here to get my side of the story out.”
And for over four hours, well...we heard about Rod. About Rod as a little boy who played Little League baseball (including a family photo put up on the screen). We heard the heartbreak of getting cut from the baseball tryouts at Lane Tech High School. How that event was a "reality check" and changed his aspirations to the NBA. How he could spin a ball on his hand.
We heard about his first job at age 9 as a shoe shine boy. How it taught him "life lessons to get ahead and do good." And how he flunked drafting.
It took 25 minutes of this for us just to get to 1974. Then we heard how his dad worked on the Alaskan Pipeline as janitor. And we heard an emotional Rod as he said his parents would do anything for him. He admitted to vanity – ran marathons and said he was a disco- era guy who loved dressing like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He too went to Alaska in 1976 to make money for college. And he pointed out how years later - the week after his arrest he would meet Sarah Palin and talk about his experience in her neck of the woods.
We heard that Rod's dad "was someone who lost everything". How he fought the Nazis and was a prisoner of war.
We heard a choked up Rod say that his dad never lived to see him elected. And how his mother was ahead of her time suggesting he read books about powerful women like Claire Barton and Florence Nightingale.
We heard how he liked college. Was an A student but almost flunked out of law school. And the most significant day? August 16, 1977- the day Elvis died. We learned too about his Aunt Helen. That he really liked her. She was his mother's sister. And also about Ms. Dibble - his teacher that taught Shakespeare. She died of breast cancer or uterine cancer. He was sad about that. And he said a prayer for her.
The Prosecutors looked like they were beside themselves. They ask Judge Zagel to “move things along.” But the Judge says, “This is his chance to tell his story. And he’s taking it.”
Finally- he talks- well sort of - about the business at hand. That his daughter warned him as he left today to watch his language. He apologized to the people of Illinois. "When I hear myself on tape I'm a Effin jerk."
We get through law school. And as he starts to talk about meeting Patti and he is too choked up to even speak. And Patti starts to cry. The judge says to take a break. He says no. But the Judge calls for a break.
It took 25 minutes to just get to 1974. I liken it to a filibuster in a courtroom.
For over four hours we hear it all. The minutia of his life with lots of name-dropping in-between. As he speaks he alternates between looking at his attorney and looking at the jury. And they are mesmerized.
Blagojevich goes off on so many tangents it’s hard to remember the point he was making.
During one of the breaks, Jim Matsumoto, the jury foreman on the first Blagojevich trial quips “If Blago would have testified during the first trial, we would have found him guilty of subjecting us to this.”
We learn that he bought Patti’s engagement ring for $5000 at Marshall Field. He remembers she wore a red dress. That Patti was nice to his mother. How it was Patti’s dad, Dick Mell who suggested he first run for public office. That he was close to Jesse Jackson Jr. in 1999 and went to Serbia, (he is fluent in the language) with Jesse Jackson Sr. That he did not remember Jesse Jackson Jr. asking him to name his wife as Lottery Director.
He tries to insert that the woman who WAS named to the Lottery position was in fact suggested by Jesse Jackson Sr. With that Judge Zagel instructs Aaron Goldstein to narrow the questions.
Along the way, we learn about Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly – his major fundraisers. And Gerry Kroezel, head of the Road Builder’s Association, who Blagojevich met through Dick Mell, his father-in-law.
There are long-winded answers one in which he even blurts out that he got seniors free rides and women breast cancer screenings and pap smears before that is objected to. And in the middle a juror sneezes. Blagojevich stops his soliloquy and says “God bless you.”
Now the Judge tells Blagojevich to listen carefully to the questions. To try answering yes or no or say “I don’t know.” And later, with the jury out of the room, he tells Goldstein that his client is going beyond the questions. And that it his job when Blagojevich pauses, to promptly ask another question.
GETTING TO THE SCHEMES
It is not until 3:15 that Blagojevich is asked if he knew Lon Monk was taking cash from Tony Rezko. No, he did not know he says. And when asked if he would disapprove, he answers, “Yes, it’s wrong.” Later he denies holding up the school grant and the race track legislation. He says he does not remember a press conference announcing the Chicago Academy grant in August of 2006.
He did say he remembers asking John Wyma to ask Rahm’s brother, Ari for a fundraiser after being at a function at Ari’s house in Brentwood California on about May 31 or June 1 2006. But it was not, he said in exchange for the school grant.
DAY 2 ON THE STAND
On the second day, the Blagojevich eldest daughter Amy attends. On this day, a shortened day until only noon, Rod looks more relaxed. Smiling – almost giddy.
The name Chris Kelly comes up. According to one of my colleagues, Blagojevich “tries to conjure a chokeup.”
Blagojevich describes a phone call on Thanksgiving from Kelly after not speaking to him for close to a year. The topic is a presidential pardon (Kelly had been indicted on income tax fraud.)
Blagojevich testifies that this phone call was “A big bold red flag to be careful with this bill.”
Blagojevich is referring to the racetrack legislation. And in a very convoluted way, Blagojevich describes that Kelly was close to Johnston (the race track owner) who knows George Steinbrenner, who is close to Jeb Bush who of course has the ear of his brother President George Bush.
Blagojevich also says he took his time with the bill because of what he referred to as “poison pills” – or hidden language inserted by Speaker Michael Madigan in his legislation. He referred to this as “Madigan Shenanigans.”
And at the end of the day, Goldstein asks or rather tries to ask “Did you conspire to extort money.” But Judge Zagel tells him not to ask that. He answers that he was not holding up the bill to get campaign contributions.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Some experts say that Blagojevich is trying to get to just one juror with his conversational, sometimes emotional life story. A former governor who came from a hard-working family. A guy who loved Elvis, was vain, narcissistic and who clearly loves to talk. Especially about himself.
I see a jury who has paid close attention. All of them are taking notes. Some of their notes even have tabs. When colleagues have pointed out that there are two women jurors- who seem to be on the edge of their seat fawning over the former Governor I remind them that those two jurors have done that for every witness – even Shari Schindler, the IRS agent who likely has provided the driest testimony so far.
I am told also that jurors in the first trial really liked Judge Zagel. And if that is so, I believe they will take seriously his jury instructions which demand they only decide the defendant's fate based on the evidence.
I think the danger with such long-winded answers is that they open the door for the government to show inconsistencies or to further explore topics that the defense would like to avoid. For example: Blagojevich said he did not know Monk took money from Rezko – and that he did not take money from Rezko and that he knew it was wrong, could that not open the door for the government to ask “Did you take anything of value from Rezko?” At the first trial, we learned that Rezko provided free renovations to the Blagojevich home. This was not brought up at the retrial. But might the defense have opened that door?
And as for Blagojevich’s photographic memory – the ability to remember details from when he as a kid to his ability to recite Shakespeare and Aeschylus – if I were a juror in that room I would be saying – his memory is razor-sharp and yet he doesn’t remember a press conference announcing a school grant- in a district that he used to represent?
And let’s not forget, perhaps most damaging of all, in light of the defense strategy that this is all “politics as usual” or “political horse-trading” that the government will be allowed to play a video of a 2009 interview with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC in which she asks Blagojevich,
"Do you agree, that it would be wrong, it would be criminal, for you to try to exchange Barack Obama's senate seat … for something that would be of value to you?"
"Oh absolutely," Blagojevich said. Then, seeking clarification he asks, "A personal, you know, one for the other personal gain?"
"Yeah," Maddow says.
"Absolutely," Blagojevich replies.
"And you didn't do that?"
"Absolutely not," he said.
Watch for yourself (below - fast forward to about 6:34). Stay tuned tomorrow. And follow me on Twitter (@Msjournalist) for live courtroom updates.