By Hilary Russell and Jamey Dunn
Gov. Rod Blagojevich opted Monday to state his side of the story in the court of public opinion rather than in an impeachment trial considering his possible conviction and removal from office. While the governor had a full day of interviews with some rather quirky and comedic moments, the full Illinois Senate met for its first day of “solemn and serious” deliberations that set the stage for a more dramatic day Tuesday.
It started shortly after 7 a.m. with an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The View.” He later was a guest on "Larry King Live." In a taped interview on NBC’s the “Today Show,” Blagojevich compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. While live on “Good Morning America,” he dropped what appears to be a planned bombshell that he considered appointing Oprah Winfrey to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
“She seemed to be someone who would help Barack Obama significantly in the presidency, obviously someone with a much broader bully pulpit than a lot of senators,” he told Diane Sawyer. “My consideration of Oprah was tempered by the fact that she probably wouldn’t take it.”
The plug even caught Winfrey off guard. Winfrey received the news from best friend Gayle King while chatting on King’s Syrius radio talk show.
“Wait a minute if I’d been watching [Good Morning America] as I [usually] watch from the treadmill, I’d probably have fallen off the treadmill,” Winfrey said. “I’m pretty amused by the whole thing.” She said if offered the job, she would have said, “Uh, absolutely not. I would say where would I fit it in with my day job, my mid-day job, my night job, my radio job, my magazine job?”
While on “The View,” host Barbara Walters noted that First Lady Patti Blagojevich didn’t appear with the governor as scheduled. Walters said she canceled Sunday because she received advice from her father, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell, who told his daughter that Blagojevich uses people and then throws them away. The governor said on air that Mell’s comment had been taken out of context and was connected to an unrelated dispute over a landfill.
The interview ended on a lighter note when Joy Behar said she had heard that the governor does a good Nixon impression and asked him to raise his hands in peace signs and utter the infamous “I am not a crook” line. When the governor refused, she reached out and touched his infamous hair.
Blagojevich maintained his innocence throughout each interview, often repeating his stance that the impeachment trial process is severely biased toward him and just unfair.
“I’m here talking to Americans to let them know what’s happening in the Land of Lincoln. If they can do this to a sitting governor, deny me the right to bring witnesses in, and prove my innocence,” he said. “If they can do it in Illinois, they can do it in New York and other states where governors fight for the people.”
(Shortly after Day 1 of the Senate trial ended today, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton took issue with Blagojevich’s statements that the trial rules are unfair. Cullerton said the governor still could make motions to present his defense. It would be up to 40 of the 59 senators to allow his motion.)
Some major media personalities did defend the governor today. One source of support came from an impromptu interview with Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, who said he had been promised the first cable news interview with Blagojevich at 2 p.m. But Blagojevich’s press people canceled the interview at the last minute. Rivera accused Blagojevich’s newly hired publicist, Glenn Selig, of sabotaging the interview. Selig also represents Drew Peterson, a former Bolingbrook cop and suspect in the murder of at least one of his ex-wives.
Rivera knocked on the window of the governor’s SUV in a parking lot after his appearance on “The View.” When the governor recognized the reporter, he got out of his vehicle and granted the interview. Rivera backed up Blagojevich’s complaint about the Senate trial being unfair by referring to the proceedings as a “runaway train” that the governor could do nothing to stop.
Rivera asked Blagojevich if he was broke and what he would do if he lost his position and salary. Blagojevich compared himself to people facing unemployment due to the economic downturn. “There are tens of thousands of Americans who are losing their jobs as we speak. So I’m not the only one. And I’m not going to sit here and start whining about my fate. I’ll pick myself up, and I’ll figure out a way to make a living, and a good living, for my family.”
Rivera joked that he would buy the governor dinner, and Blagojevich laughed and asked if that would be ethical. The two hugged at the conclusion of the interview.
By Bethany Jaeger
Meanwhile, Illinois senators reacted to the governor’s media blitz by saying while he has the right not to attend the proceedings, he at least should have presented a defense rather than bounce between New York studios.
“It just goes to the pattern of the Blagojevich governorship, which is public relations and platitudes rather than actually showing up under the Capitol dome to conduct state business, let alone appear at his own impeachment trial,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.
“We’re serious about this. We’ve taken an oath that we will do justice according to the law, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne. “This whole process has been embarrassing. We shouldn’t even be here today, but we’re here, and we’re going to do according to the law. We’re going to provide justice according to law.”
House prosecutor David Ellis, who represents the sentiments of the Illinois House when it voted to impeach the governor last month, said his case rests on the governor’s own actions and his own words, not the actions or words of others. Ellis alleged that the governor knowingly broke the law when serving as governor.
“Throughout this testimony, you will see that the governor clearly knew that what he was doing was illegal,” Ellis said to the Senate chamber. “The words he used to his subordinates — ‘Be careful how you say things. Assume everybody is listening. Don’t put anything in writing. Don’t talk on the phone. I would do it in person.’ — that’s the kind of advice the governor was giving to his subordinates throughout this evidence that we’ll talk about.”
Recorded conversations of the governor obtained as part of the ongoing criminal investigation will be “front and center” in Ellis’ case, starting tomorrow with the testimony of an FBI agent who validated the governor’s voice on the secret recordings.
Ellis said the evidence will show that the governor’s words went “well beyond harmless chatter or idle speculation to active plotting to personally enrich himself in exchange for official acts that the governor might take.”
Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat, questioned some evidence sought by the House prosecutor, including a federal measure that would limit the amount Illinois would get in a stimulus package as long as Blagojevich were governor.
“I took an oath to hear the evidence, to ask tough questions,” Hendon said during a break in Senate action. “We have to ask some questions that otherwise we would have gotten from the defense because they’re not here — because I want to get at the truth.”
Hendon also wanted the ability to vote on each accusation separately as opposed to voting on all of the allegations as a whole. He selectively mentioned the governor’s health care expansions and free mass transit rides for seniors as actions that he supported.
“So those things give me problems,” he said. “But that being said, it only takes one article to impeach. So one charge of guilty with 40 votes is more than enough, and … the House did wrong by lumping everything together. And us as senators have a greater obligation to try to get to the truth and the facts.”