In time for trial, a celebrity makeover for ex-gov Blagojevich

Illinois' ousted governor is all over the media, boosting his star power. Will that help Blagojevich when his corruption trial starts in June? It might, some analysts now say.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich jokes with the crowd during a book signing for his book, 'The Governor' at the University of Chicago Bookstore, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009, in Chicago.
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The continued celebrity makeover of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich may boost his star power, but some say another motive is at play: to influence potential jurors in a federal trial scheduled to start in June.

Since being charged in December 2008 with 16 counts of corruption, including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion, and making false statements to federal agents, Mr. Blagojevich has taken his case directly to the public. His is a bid to generate income for his family and to reshape his image from conniving play-for-pay politico heard on federal wiretaps to working-class populist who told reporters Friday he was “hijacked from office” by statehouse enemies. He is living, he says, “an epic story.”

“I think it really is a strategy to influence a jury pool, and I think it’s become more and more likely [to have an effect] than even in the beginning,” says Elizabeth Brackett, a Chicago PBS anchor and author of “Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow."

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The list of talk-show hosts Blagojevich has not talked to has dwindled as he has served couch time with everyone from Howard Stern to Jimmy Kimmel to David Letterman. Along the way he wrote a book and sang Elvis Presley tunes at a block party. He also hosts a weekly radio show on WLS-AM in Chicago.

The latest venture is his pending star turn on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” the Donald Trump vehicle on NBC pitting the former governor against cohorts Sharon Osbourne, the wife of Ozzy, and comedian Sinbad. The show is perfectly timed to end with the opening week of his trial, notes Ms. Brackett.

“He would just have been on a national show … how can you find a juror who has not heard about this?” she asks.

It's show time

At a brief press conference in Chicago Friday, Blagojevich rolled with the one-liners that helped widen his national spotlight. “I am all shook up,” he says in response to Time magazine naming him the second best Elvis impersonator ever. Regarding Mr. Trump’s hair versus his own fussed-over coiffure: “Donald Trump’s my boss. He’s got better hair.”

But when asked what effect his media blitz will have on the inevitable jury process, Blagojevich, a Democrat, says it’s all part of his desire to “go out and meet with people” to show he’s “an honest person.” He derided current Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn for raising taxes, but he declined to endorse any of the governor's opponents in next month's primary.

While Blagojevich has long emphasized his working-class roots, Brackett says she's unsure if those same credentials will ring true with the public in light of the charges against him.

“They helped get him elected,” she says. “But what’s so pathetic about it is those were his public politics while his actions completely screwed the little guy in Illinois. So greed and corruption did not match his public pronouncements of populist politics.”

Outlasting the feds is hard to do

Blagojevich's mounting media appearances are not enough to outweigh the increasing evidence against him, says Andy Shaw, executive director of the Better Government Association, a public watchdog group. While it is “perfectly reasonable” for Blagojevich to make money, says Mr. Shaw, “the federal government has all the time and all the money in the world” to prosecute its case.

“It won’t do him much good to create a hung jury because the feds will keep trying him,” says Shaw. “[The media campaign] may create sympathy, but all he is doing is postponing the inevitable.”

For Heather Jamieson of Wheaton, Ill., who arrived 90 minutes early to have Blagojevich sign her copy of his new book, the former governor “did a lot of good things in office.” She says she is buying the book because she is “curious to hear his version” of the charges, but admits she’d “be heartbroken” if a trial reveals they are true.

“If he did a lot of bad things, we’ll find out,” she says. “I’m behind him until then.”

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