Standing between the hot-food bar and the stir-fry line in the Chicago federal courthouse cafeteria, Rod Blagojevich jokes with a Bloomberg reporter. He offers her a Pepsi, after learning she lives in Coca-Cola’s hometown, Atlanta.
“At least he’s friendly,” a young woman remarks to a companion in the pay line as potential jurors interviewed that morning for Blagojevich’s trial swirl around the cafeteria.
Blagojevich, 54, charged with trying to trade his power as Illinois governor for favors and campaign donations, has been showing a softer side rather than the pugnacious and profane politician the public got to know. He smiles, jokes and offers thumbs-ups and handshakes to anyone amenable inside or outside the Everett Dirksen Federal Courthouse where he’ll go on trial next week.
The man who once called his power to appoint Barack Obama’s Senate replacement “f-----g golden” and challenged a prosecutor to be “man enough” to face him in court now dandles a dog named Skittles as he confesses to the press of “moments of fear.”
Before jury selection started April 20, Blagojevich hosted journalists for interviews at his home. In an Associated Press story in the suburban Northwest Herald, he was quoted as saying it’s “brutal” to have to sit through all that testimony again. An AP photo showed him in jeans and a knit shirt with the family dog on his lap.
“Blago: ‘I have my moments of fear’” was the headline in the Chicago Sun-Times’s Southtown Star. The story opened with Patti, his wife, making coffee and him in “his reading room” ruminating on the “multitude of books he’s read.” When the couple moved to the living room, Skittles took turns jumping onto their laps.
For still another story, in the Chicago Tribune, the ex-governor was photographed with a fireplace in the background and dog on lap. Patti, the paper reported, was on hand too.
The vulnerable, subdued Blagojevich contrasts with the character created through Elvis impersonations, reality TV appearances (Donald Trump fired him during a “Celebrity Apprentice” episode) and attacks on his prosecutors.
He called government lawyers “cowards and liars” last year and challenged U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to be “man enough” to face him in court instead of sending assistants, the Associated Press reported. The ex-governor said the prosecutor told a “big lie” and was trying to “cover up.”
Blagojevich still marshals passion and vehemence in proclaiming his innocence and accusing prosecutors of hiding evidence. He has toned down the pugnacity he showed in the wake of his indictment in 2008, when he declared, “I will fight, I will fight, I will fight until I take my last breath.”
Nor has he made the rounds of national television interview shows as he did during state impeachment proceedings in 2009 and after his first federal court trial last year.
After the Illinois House voted to impeach him and before the Senate tried and removed him, Blagojevich appeared on NBC’s “Today” show, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “Fox News Sunday,” ABC’s “The View” and others. He complained of “persecution” by prosecutors and a state proceeding where “the fix is in.”
On “Today” he said that, when he was arrested, he thought of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Blagojevich launched another round of nationally televised appearances after his 2010 trial at which the jury convicted him of lying to federal agents while failing to reach verdicts on 23 other charges.
“Twenty-three down and one to go,” he told Jon Stewart of “‘The Daily Show,” as if he had rid himself of those 23 charges. Prosecutors slimmed them to 20, which he faces now.
Is he playing to the jury pool with the new round of local interviews?
“Of course,” said Richard Waites, a Chicago-based jury consultant not part of the former governor’s case.
“It may seem manipulative, because it is,” says Waites. Trained as a psychologist and lawyer, he’s chief executive officer of a multicity trial consulting firm, the Advocates.
Asked over lunch whether he was attempting an image re-make, Blagojevich said, “No.” His wife then cut short the conversation, saying news interviews aren’t allowed in the cafeteria. Neither Blagojevich nor his spokesman Glenn Selig replied later to phone and e-mail messages.
In the jury-pool questioning, most of those who told the judge they have an impression of Blagojevich weren’t favorably inclined toward him.
One called him a “nut case” on a questionnaire. Another, who had seen him on reality TV, thought him “off center.” Several said they believe him to be guilty.
“It would take a strong case by Mr. Blagojevich to prove he’s not guilty,” one prospective juror wrote.
Such comments alone didn’t persuade U.S. District Judge James Zagel to send them home. When pressed individually on whether they could decide the case only on the evidence at the trial, those who said they could stayed in the pool.
From that group of more than 40, prosecutors and defense lawyers next week will pick 12 jurors and six alternates, with each side allowed cuts -- 13 for the defense and nine for the government -- without having to say why. Then will come opening statements and evidence, including the recorded conversations.
In one captured talk, Blagojevich describes his power to appoint Obama’s replacement in the Senate seat he vacated to become president.
“I’ve got this thing, and it’s f-----g golden, and I’m not giving it up for f-----g nothing,” the governor is heard to say.
That excerpt is so well-known that a potential juror downloaded it from the Internet and used it as his telephone ringtone, he told the judge.
Blagojevich made fun of it, too, when he and his wife co-hosted a local radio show on WLS-AM last month and he complimented himself on air on how well he had handled the show.
“Hey, Patti, you’ll be proud of me,” he said. “Not one single swear word. It’s effing golden how I’m doing here.”