Illinois Begins Blagojevich Impeachment Trial The Illinois Senate has started the impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The governor, however, was on a media blitz in New York, saying he can't get a fair hearing in the Illinois state Senate. The trial could lead to Blagojevich being removed as governor.
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Illinois Begins Blagojevich Impeachment Trial

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Illinois Begins Blagojevich Impeachment Trial

Illinois Begins Blagojevich Impeachment Trial

Illinois Begins Blagojevich Impeachment Trial

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/99885664/99885638" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Illinois Senate has started the impeachment trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The governor, however, was on a media blitz in New York, saying he can't get a fair hearing in the Illinois state Senate. The trial could lead to Blagojevich being removed as governor.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The governor of Illinois is living up to his pledge to fight hard as his impeachment trial gets started in the state Senate. But Rod Blagojevich isn't making his case to the lawmakers. He's making it to the public.

SIEGEL: The Illinois House impeached Blagojevich earlier this month following his arrest on corruption charges. They accused him of official misconduct and abusing the power of his office. If convicted by the Senate, the governor will be immediately removed from office.

NORRIS: But Blagojevich refused to attend his trial, and instead he went to New York to make his case on national television. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER: In making the rounds at network and cable TV studios, Blagojevich is facing the most pointed questions yet about the allegations he tried to illegally sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama to the highest bidder. On "Good Morning America," Blagojevich was asked about his alleged comments caught on FBI surveillance tapes that the Senate seat is, quote, "bleeping golden," and that he's just not giving it up for bleeping nothing.

(Soundbite of TV show "Good Morning America")

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): They took snippets of conversations completely out of context, did not provide all of the tapes to tell the whole story, and when the whole story comes out, you will see that the effort was to work to have a senator who can best represent Illinois and one that could help us create jobs and provide health care.

SCHAPER: The Democratic governor seems to be suggesting that there was nothing more than political horse-trading going on and that he was trying to leverage the Senate seat to the benefit of the people of Illinois. Blagojevich also continues to rail against the rules established for his Senate impeachment trial and against his critics, including Chicago Mayor Richard Daley who calls Blagojevich "cuckoo."

(Soundbite of TV show "Good Morning America")

Governor BLAGOJEVICH: Here's a question I have to you, to Mayor Daley and everyone else. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? How is it that you can make a couple of allegations, take some conversations completely out of context?

SCHAPER: In recent days, Blagojevich has compared his own plight to those of world leaders of the past who were jailed for their convictions, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi. Blagojevich says he is going to the airwaves instead of defending himself in Springfield to let the rest of the world know what he is up against, which he contends is a bipartisan conspiracy to remove him from office. On "The Today Show," he complained that the fix is in because the impeachment trial rules are unfair. He contends they don't allow him to call witnesses in his defense.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Today Show")

Governor BLAGOJEVICH: You can conceivably bring in 15 angels and 20 saints led by Mother Theresa to come in and testify to my good character and my integrity and all the rest. It wouldn't matter. There's no chance whatsoever to have a fair hearing.

SCHAPER: Meantime, a somber mood fell over the chambers of the Illinois state Senate.

(Soundbite of Senate hearing)

Chief Justice THOMAS FITZGERALD (Illinois Supreme Court): President Cullerton moves that the Senate resolve itself into an impeachment tribunal for the purpose of commencing the trial of the impeachment of the governor.

SCHAPER: Illinois Supreme Court justice Thomas Fitzgerald is presiding.

Chief Justice FITZGERALD: Seeing no objection, it is so ordered. The Senate is now resolved into an impeachment tribunal.

SCHAPER: As Illinois state senators began the first impeachment trial of a governor in the state's history, they said Blagojevich is wrong about the trial rules and that he is misstating what they do and don't allow. Before the House prosecutor began to present his case, Republican Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said the rules will provide the governor with a fair trial even without him being here.

(Soundbite of Senate hearing)

State Senator CHRISTINE RADOGNO (Republican, Lemont, Illinois): We will work expeditiously, but efficiently, and we will be fair and thorough. That is the only way that we can move beyond the immense challenges that we face today and to deal with the business of the state.

SCHAPER: The House prosecutor then began laying out the case saying this trial will deal with the chief executive who has, quote, "repeatedly and utterly abused the privileges of his office." With the governor and his attorneys boycotting the impeachment trial, it will likely last less than the two weeks planned. And Blagojevich could be removed from office before the week's end. David Schaper, NPR News in Springfield, Illinois.

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Blagojevich Storms Media In Self-Defense Blitz

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich listens to a caller while on the air with radio talk show host Cliff Kelley at WVON radio station in Chicago on Friday. Paul Beaty/Getty Images hide caption

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Paul Beaty/Getty Images

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich listens to a caller while on the air with radio talk show host Cliff Kelley at WVON radio station in Chicago on Friday.

Paul Beaty/Getty Images

The booking mug shot for O.J. Simpson, taken on June 17, 1994. After his trial, Simpson wrote a book and went on a media tour. Los Angeles Police Department via AP hide caption

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Los Angeles Police Department via AP

The booking mug shot for O.J. Simpson, taken on June 17, 1994. After his trial, Simpson wrote a book and went on a media tour.

Los Angeles Police Department via AP

Baseball star Roger Clemens testified on Capitol Hill to deny involvement with Performance-enhancing drugs. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images hide caption

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Baseball star Roger Clemens testified on Capitol Hill to deny involvement with Performance-enhancing drugs.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tick, tick, tick. That's the sound of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's career about to implode. The besieged Illinois governor is playing with a tricky admixture of self-importance, overexposure and downright showmanship. It may be only a matter of time.

Tick, tick, tick. In Springfield on Monday, the state Senate opened an impeachment trial. (The Illinois House voted to impeach him just over two weeks ago.) The governor is accused of abusing his power by, among other charges, attempting to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich says he is not participating in the proceedings because the rules are skewed against him. Instead, he is spending more time in prayerful meditation and hanging out with his family.

Just kidding.

In truth, he's going on a breakneck TV blitz: the Today Show, Good Morning America, The View, Larry King Live — all in one day! He's stretching his 15 minutes of fame into a couple of hours, minus commercial breaks. He is mounting an all-out "self-defense by public relations onslaught" strategy.

When people in the public eye — politicians, actors, sports figures — get in trouble, they usually follow a pattern, says Gary Hoppenstand, who teaches popular culture at Michigan State University. "First they say they are sorry. Then they go to the public to try to gain the sympathy of their audience."

Blagojevich, on the other hand, "is being very belligerent, defiant, almost to the point of absurdity," Hoppenstand says.

In the past few days, Blagojevich has pointed out similarities between himself and other mistreated heroes, including Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and wrongfully accused cowboys in Hollywood movies.

"He is saying that any discussion of character must be carried on in the court of public opinion," Hoppenstand says. "He is trying to bypass the political structure." The irony, Hoppenstand adds, is that Blagojevich is critical of the media for how he is portrayed, but he is using the media nevertheless.

A Grandiose Tradition

The relentless self-distribution by Blagojevich is the latest episode in a great American tradition — a quest for grace via limelight. Self-help meets self-hype. He's following in a long line of human time bombs — some were found guilty of crimes; others were only accused of or suspected of wrongdoing — whom a mesmerized public watches in mouth-agape disbelief.

The prime example is O.J. Simpson. Tried for the 1994 murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman, Simpson was found not guilty. He set out to rehabilitate his reputation by giving interviews and writing a book.

When uberhomemaker Martha Stewart was charged with insider trading, she snapped back with a full-page ad in USA Today in 2003 — and a Web site --proclaiming her innocence. Baseball demigod Roger Clemens took to the airwaves in 2008 to deny any involvement with performance-enhancing drugs. Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and others have launched self-promotional blitzes to try to burnish their tarnished images.

In trying times, other politicians besides Blagojevich have gone on self-publicity tours to try to hold on to their power. Gary Hart turned to Ted Koppel and Nightline in 1987 to address charges of adultery. Bill Clinton was questioned by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes — after the Super Bowl in 1992 — about accusations of philandering. Rep. Gary Condit, a California Democrat who had an affair with Chandra Levy, a young Washington intern, was interviewed by Connie Chung about Levy's disappearance in 2001.

Public self-defense is not exclusive to the U.S. A few years ago, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was accused of election corruption. Opponents called on her to resign. Instead, she staged a public campaign to maintain her power.

From Charming To Alarming

Tick, tick, tick. Now Blagojevich is all over television, saying that he considered appointing TV superstar Oprah Winfrey to fill the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. He chose former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris instead and introduced Burris at a news conference that starred — tada! — Blagojevich. Incidentally, Burris himself went on a PR trek to convince a skeptical public that he was the right man for the job.

Marina Ein, a Washington-based public relations maven, has handled publicity for celebs and politicians — including Gary Condit — through the years. Asked about Blagojevich, Ein says, "I think what he ought to do is leave gracefully and write the book. He should get a power agent because he has an amazing story to tell. He has been an amazingly charismatic person."

When something goes wrong in the lives of people who have outsized personalities, Ein says, "Often the same force of character that made them so charming serves in an exact way to deconstruct them."