NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. A couple of hours ago Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich delivered his closing argument at his impeachment trial before the Illinois State Senate. Until today, Blagojevich boycotted the proceedings until every TV host from Larry King to Rachel Maddow that the rules were unfair and unconstitutional, that the State Senate was sitting as Kangaroo Court. Like yesterday, Blagojevich reverse course and said he wanted to appear and not to testify which would expose him to cross-examination, but to make three quarters of an hour long speech. And the speech began with the governor telling the Senate that he was grateful for the opportunity to make his case to them and to the people of Illinois.
(Soundbite of speech)
Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): I'm here to talk to you and appeal to you, to your sense of fairness, your sense of responsibility, your commitment to the Constitution, your commitment to basic fairness. And I'm asking you, as I speak to you today, to imagine yourself walking in my shoes. Think about you if someone said the things that they said about me and you know you didn't do it. But there's been a rush to judgment and an evisceration of the presumption of innocence. Imagine how you would approach this and what you would do. Think about if you knew you were right and you were innocent and you didn't do anything wrong, whether you should be rushed out office, disgrace your family, disgrace your children and imply - and imply that you might have actually done the things they said you did. Think about your responsibilities when the people choose you and you know you've kept your faith with them but everybody else is saying you didn't, but if you quit and give up and leave without having a chance to prove your innocence, how you abandon them and you've quit on them and you violated your commitment to them. I'm here to give every possible explanation to everyone of these allegations. And I'm grateful that you have at least given me that.
CONAN: Rod Blagojevich addressing the Illinois State Senate which is sitting as his jury in an impeachment trial. We'd like to hear from the governor's constituents in Illinois. Did Blagojevich make his case today? 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation in our website. That's at npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. Joining us by phone now from Springfield, Illinois is Rick Pearson, political reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Nice - nice of you to take sometime out of your busy, busy day.
Mr. RICK PEARSON (Political Reporter, Chicago Tribune): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And did Governor Blagojevich accomplish anything today?
Mr. PEARSON: I'm really not sure. I mean, it seems to be the consensus from a lot of the people that I've talked to is that it was too little too late, that while he gives a very speech that his chance really came when he chose not to participate in the trial. And that's the swooping in at the last minute to address the senators without the senators to - being able to ask any questions really didn't accomplish much.
CONAN: So, the opportunity may have been fleeting - well, it is passed him by. But he said, look, I was denied the opportunity to call the witnesses. I wanted to call the people who could my innocence.
Mr. PEARSON: Well, and this has been, you know, part of his mantra that included a 48-hour whirlwind tour of I think every TV studio in New York in trying to liken the impeachment process to a criminal trial proceeding. When it's up - it is in fact a political proceeding and it's - as the prosecutor of the House, prosecutor has noted it that this is not a punitive process aimed at putting somebody in jail. This was a constitutional political process and what about the rights of the people of Illinois and his inability to perform his duties.
CONAN: At one point indeed, the governor quoted the prosecutor, Mr. Ellis, and said that he has to well - I'm not sure how to put it. Let's hear the governor out it himself.
(Soundbite of speech)
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: But to quote Mr. Ellis. The means need to - the ends don't justify the means. An improper impeachment not based on evidence are improper means that don't justify the ends.
CONAN: And well, again, as much difficulty parsing that as I did.
Mr. PEARSON: Well, but at the same time, you have the House prosecutor basically when he wrapped up his rebuttal and that only took about eight minutes to do it. So, you know, when you have the governor and the cameras are on and he thinks the people are listening, he gives a pretty good speech. But when the cameras are off, he's not talking about health care or creating jobs, and instead, recited some portions of those covert tape recordings that were pinned by the FBI that really led to his arrest back in December.
CONAN: And Governor Blagojevich tried to address the issue of the tapes as well.
Governor BLAGOJEVICH: You heard those four tapes. I don't have to tell you what they say. You guys are in politics, you know what we have to do to go out and run elections. There was no criminal activity on those four tapes. You can express things in a free country but those four tapes speak for themselves. Take those four tapes as they are, and you will - I believe in fairness recognize and acknowledge those are conversations relating to the things all of us in politics do in order to run campaigns and try to win elections.
CONAN: Not flattering, the governor argued, but politics as usual.
Mr. PEARSON: Yeah. And of course, this is also a guy who basically glided into office by arguing that he was going to shake up the system and not do politics as usual in Illinois, the pay-to-play style of politics. And, you know, one of the allegations in those four tape recordings was that he was basically trying to coordinate the signing of a bill to benefit the horse racing industry after he got $100,000 from the horse racing industry.
CONAN: There was also the issue - well, he - a lot of these wasn't even responding to the allegations against him in the articles of impeachment. He was - well, his life story, the son of an immigrant from a communist country, a cold warrior who came here and worked hard and the local boy makes a good story.
Mr. PEARSON: Right. The political every man type of thing.
CONAN: And going to the Congress, I remember hearing him tell the story about John Warner, the senator from Virginia, thought he was paged and sent him out for some coffee.
Mr. PEARSON: Right. And which, frankly, the governor - his previous term in Congress was not necessarily known that he distinguished himself for months. So, that might be news to some of his constituents.
CONAN: And where do we stand now? We've had the governor make his closing argument and you've said the prosecutor from the Illinois…
Mr. PEARSON: House of Representatives.
CONAN: House of Representatives has summarized their rebuttal. So the Senate, are they going to vote today?
Mr. PEARSON: Oh yes, they will. And in fact, Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn flew down to Springfield this morning from Chicago. Also on the plane was a member of the Supreme Court that he brought with to swear him in to become the state's 41st governor.
CONAN: And that's on the basis that, well, the House impeached him on a vote of 117 to one and of course, the one was his sister-in-law.
Mr. PEARSON: That's correct. And the expectations are that senators - some of the senators will have a chance to publicly discuss their feelings on this and then a roll call scheduled for later today.
CONAN: Let's hear from some callers from Illinois. 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll begin with Ruth, Ruth calling from Chicago.
RUTH (Caller): Hi. I'm a mom of three. My kids are covered by the All Kids Medical Program. And I think the governor is being penalized by these vague and shadowy rules that are governing campaign financing. I agree with him that if they're going to scrutinize him under a microscope, then a lot of other politicians deserve to be examined under a similarly harsh light. He's done a lot of good for working class and poor families like my own. I think that they've already decided his fate, and I think that it's unfair. He's (unintelligible) to me is typical of Chicago politics and I think it's hypocritical to nail him to the wall.
CONAN: Typical of Chicago.
RUTH: By that, I mean…
CONAN: Go ahead.
RUTH: What he's achieved for families needing medical care. His ends do justify his means.
CONAN: Even if those ends - well, the trial remains to be held - the criminal trial even if those ends prove to be corrupt.
RUTH: Yes. I think that, to me, when I read the trivia and I follow local politics, there's so much corruption. So many people - they might say, oh, I'm above and I'm going to run out a different kind of platform, it doesn't matter. It's just a bunch of talk and as long as the policies are there and in place, the policies that I support, then I'm OK.
CONAN: OK Ruth, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And that children's health-care program that she was talking about, Rick Pearson, that is - it involves one of the issues of the articles of impeachment.
Mr. PEARSON: Well, All Kids. And All Kids was kind of an expansion of health care, and one of the issues in the article of impeachment is the fact that the governor went beating around, the legislature did not receive specific legislative authorization to conduct this expansion of health-care programs and really, you know, went down to the concerns that we all know about health care nationally. But the programs are great but how do you pay for them.
CONAN: Let's get Todd on the line, Todd, another caller from Chicago.
TODD (Caller): Yeah, hi Neal. Hi Rick. I read your stuff in the Tribune, and I appreciate it. I got a little story. We were one of the - my union was one of the early supporters of Rod Blagojevich when he first ran. And we had lost our governing rights in a midnight bill during the Governor Edgar's administration when CPS is turned over to control of Mayor Daly and there was a midnight writer that stripped us of our bargaining rights.
CONAN: CPS, the Chicago Public Schools?
TODD: I'm actually with City Colleges of Chicago.
TODD: And we were - we're not part of the same bargaining unit at CPS. However, it was about 10 years we've been fighting and we had a bill that would've been sponsored and kept being presented to the House which was controlled by the Democrats but the Republicans were in charge of the Senate and they wouldn't let the bill get to the governor's office. And finally, we put our money, so to speak, on Blagojevich and lo and behold, one of the first things he did when he became governor was we got our bargaining rights back. So it is Chicago politics. And I think he is going to go down now. And I think he should because it's - he may not be guilty of criminal wrongdoing but I think he, right now, is a very ineffective governor and we have two more years and it's going to paralyze the state. We have to get some things done.
CONAN: Rick Pearson, you hear that argument a lot. Guilty or innocent, he's going to be tied up with his own trial for some time to come.
Mr. PEARSON: Right. And indeed, that's part of the prosecution argument is that, you know, under these charges, he's lost - he's the only governor who's lost his national security clearance. Just - there's concerns about the state's bond rating and the ability to borrow money in a state that has desperate financial problems. And that's also part of the argument here is how can he effectively manage the duties of the state that way.
CONAN: Todd, thanks very much for the call.
TODD: You bet. Appreciate it.
CONAN: One other question came up in Governor Blagojevich's argument. He says: You're going to be setting an awful precedent. This is somebody who's not been charged even yet, much less convicted of a crime. You have presented no proof of wrongdoing here in these proceedings. You can argue with that I suppose. But you're setting a chilling precedent for future governors.
Mr. PEARSON: Well, indeed, it is a precedent because no governor has ever been, until him, had ever been impeached before or in the Senate that never conducted an impeachment trial. So he's right that it is a precedent. And, you know, certainly, the governor, being a lawyer, trying to raise that argument when he said precedent, that no future governor will feel comfortable in his dealings with the legislature. But there's a lot of pent-up feelings in this general assembly about Blagojevich, that - and it was kind of evident in the way he went to New York for the media tour, kind of attacking their rules. And he frequently kind of belittled them and tried to show an imperial attitude. And really, this all came - this has all come to a head now with the criminal arrest in December.
CONAN: We're talking with Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune about the remarkable address earlier today by Governor Rod Blagojevich to the Illinois State Senate which is sitting as a jury in his impeachment trial. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Leslie is on the line calling from Chicago.
LESLIE (Caller): Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good, thank you.
LESLIE: I love the governor, I have to say. I have two little kids and they both have insurance through All Kids. My grandmother and my great grandfather ride the bus regularly and they get to ride for free. They both take medicine and (unintelligible) support of his prescription drugs from Canada. So I mean - and I think corrupt politicians like Ruth said are just part of the course in Illinois. You know, it shouldn't be but if we're going to have a corrupt one, at least have one that does something for poor and working class people. And I just think if the legislative branch in Illinois like the governor, he wouldn't be being impeached. If he was given money to big business instead of to himself and poor people, we wouldn't have a problem.
CONAN: I did not look at the governor's opinion polls. This - before the charges were made and, well, they were awfully low too.
LESLIE: Yeah, I know most people don't agree with me. But I personally - if he ran again, I'd vote for him.
CONAN: Even though he's trying to allegedly get a big campaign contributions for doing acts of state, for signing bills.
LESLIE: I mean, I think he's wrong and he should be punished for what's wrong. However, if you look at the other politicians who have come before him in Illinois and even the ones who start with him, you know, we need to - if we're going to hold everybody to this standard, then we need to purge(ph) our whole government and we need to start fresh with regular people from everyday walks of life because there is not a politician who would - in Illinois currently I think, who really is honest and above board(ph) and is not ultimately out for political gain for him or herself.
CONAN: And Rick Pearson, she does have a point there. There could be a former governor suite at Joliet Prison.
Mr. PEARSON: (Laughing) That's true. And unfortunately, you know, what she is saying and some of these other callers are saying is that a sad fact of life in Illinois where (unintelligible) people almost have expectations of corruption. And that you pay a corruption tax as part of your taxes of government if it's like the sliding scale of corruption and as long as certain needs are met, then it's OK. And Illinois is one of the few states in the country that has no limits on the amount of the donors can give. And of course, in this age of multimedia and winning elections, politicians are trying desperately to get big money donations and that's' where all the pay-to-play comes in.
CONAN: Leslie, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
LESLIE: Thank you.
CONAN: And when do you expect we could get a vote today in the Senate?
Mr. PEARSON: We expect a vote within a couple of hours.
CONAN: Rick Pearson, thank you very much for your time today.
Mr. PEARSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Rick Pearson is a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune joining us today by phone from Springfield, Illinois where he reports the Illinois State Senate will vote in a couple of hours time to convict Governor Rod Blagojevich in his impeachment trial. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday and Ira Flatow will join us to look at some of the outside-the-box ideas on building greener cars. Plus, teaching biology through comic books. And the weather forecast for a superhot planet. Ira Flatow will have all that tomorrow. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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