Rod being Rod: Glad-handing, hugging Blagojevich tries to connect during corruption trial
CHICAGO – CHICAGO (AP) — When it comes to his inner-campaign switch, Rod Blagojevich apparently knows only one mode: 'On.'
Since his corruption trial began this month, the impeached Illinois governor has drawn on his skill as a politician to work the federal courthouse — from the sidewalk outside to hallways and the cafeteria to his courtroom — glad-handing bystanders and talking to reporters.
Exiting an elevator recently on the way to his courtroom, the big-haired Blagojevich cheerfully agreed to pose for cell-phone snapshots. He hugged a woman in line to attend his trial. At the slightest encouragement, he moves in for chitchat.
"Great to see you," he says, smiling at one man and noticing his T-shirt emblazoned with a running logo. "Are you a runner, too?"
His approaching the trial as if he's still running for office has raised the ire of prosecutors, who asked the no-nonsense presiding Judge James Zagel to bar the one-time congressman and twice-elected governor from speaking to the media.
Instead, Zagel told attorneys to try to come up with an agreement on what they could say in public and report back to him on Monday — though he left open the possibility of a gag order.
Some onlookers wondered if the ex-governor's TV talk-show blitz and his memorable stint on "The Celebrity Apprentice" reality show in the lead-up to his trial were a calculated bid to charm audience members who might end up as his jurors. On "Celebrity Apprentice," he struggled to text message from a cell phone; but he was considerate and respectful of fellow contestants.
Once the jury was seated and the trial got under way, he did not assume the standard defendant gloom — and general silence — seen in other legal battles versus the U.S. government.
Blagojevich, 53, practically skips from the car that delivers him and his wife to the same courthouse curb each day. He waves and gives the thumbs-up to commuters — even when they appear to take little notice of him.
He's also on whenever jurors file into the jury box. Standing respectfully, he appears to scan their faces — trying to make eye contact, trying to connect.
In court, Blagojevich often scribbles notes as prosecutors play wiretap recordings or as witnesses testify against him; he craned his neck to view a chart prosecutors say illustrated the money trail.
Occasionally, he turns to smile at his wife, Patti, or passes her folded notes. Other times, he pats his trademark helmet hair to ensure the meticulously combed strands are in place. He laughed when, in a recording played in court, someone says about a woman, "She loves your hair."
Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and ran a racketeering scheme from the governor's office.
Only a few times has he seemed ill at ease, including when his former chief of staff Alonzo Monk took the stand to say the then-governor and his inner circle allegedly hatched schemes to squeeze companies for cash and split the takings after Blagojevich left office.
Prosecutors complained that they noticed him shaking his head and grumbling as Monk testified, and Zagel told the former governor to stop it.
Nearly every day, Blagojevich heads down for lunch to the sole courthouse eatery, crowded with building employees, defendants, judges and even jurors — passing tables, nodding and shaking hands. Outside the courtroom doors, he often stops to engage U.S. marshals in conversation, asking about their families and appearing to focus on every word.
Before jurors had entered the courtroom after a break Thursday, he stopped to speak to spectators on courtroom benches — commenting about a menu board in the cafeteria that day that included a sandwich named "The Innocent aka Blago." Chuckling, he called it an "accurate and truthful" sandwich.
And once proceedings adjourn, no matter the testimony that day, he's all smiles — again working the hallways, lobbies and sidewalks as he makes his way back to his car.
After prosecutors requested the gag order, Blagojevich resisted his obvious urge to talk, grinning at reporters but drawing his index finger across his mouth in the zipped-lip sign.
"I'm dying to, but I can't," he said at another point when reporters shouted to him for a comment.
It may be difficult for Blagojevich to contain himself and switch off his campaign mode for the three or four months the trial could last.
But the biggest test of his ability to charm and woo may still await him: His attorneys say he fully intends to take the witness stand at some point to talk to the jury directly. His skill there could determine if he can avoid spending years in prison.