Friday, January 30, 2009

n His Way Out, Blagojevich Makes a Day of It

CHICAGO — As the nine-seat airplane raced through the skies on Thursday somewhere between Springfield and here, an onboard telephone began to ring.

Rod R. Blagojevich, the soon-to-be ex-governor of Illinois, instructed his aides not to answer. It might be the news, he said, that he had been removed from office and that he no longer controlled the state’s thousands of employees or even, especially pertinent, the state-owned airplane taking him home.

“I’ll tell you what,” Mr. Blagojevich said, laughing, as the phone went on ringing. “I’m not jumping out. Not for those people, no way. I don’t like heights.”

So went Mr. Blagojevich’s final day as governor of Illinois. Six years ago, he had been elected on a message of reform, but on Thursday — a few hours after his plane, with a silhouette of Lincoln near its nose, landed — the State Senate unanimously voted him out of office. It was the first time that an Illinois governor had been convicted in an impeachment trial.

Through the day, Mr. Blagojevich was, by turns, furious over the methods of the trial, morose as he said goodbye to the cooks from the Governor’s Mansion and brimming with an odd gallows humor long before the lawmakers cast their votes. All the while, his assistant packed his belongings into cardboard boxes — among them, family photographs, a bust of Lincoln and a statue of Elvis.

“I’m still governor for now, and I say you take the afternoon off!” he cheerily told employees, many of them tearful. At another point, he pondered the more practical consequences of losing his job. “I wonder if we’ll have to hitchhike home,” he said. “Maybe we could take the bus.”

In the end, he left the Capitol in Springfield through a secret basement corridor full of grunting, clanking pipes, bare walls and puddles.

Mr. Blagojevich, who was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges, including an accusation that he tried to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama, had first refused to take part in his impeachment trial. Instead, as senators met in Springfield this week, he set forth on a campaign of appearances on national television talk shows to proclaim his innocence. Then, on Wednesday, he announced that he wished to make a “closing argument” in the trial he had mocked on show after show.

So on Thursday, he set off on a six-hour trip from his home on this city’s North Side to the Capitol and back again, allowing a reporter and a photographer for The New York Times to accompany him at the newspaper’s expense.

At moments during the day, Mr. Blagojevich reflected on what was ahead, most immediately how best to pay his mortgage come March 1 without his $177,000-a-year salary. He spoke of the guilt he felt toward his family for entering a political life, the “personal Greek tragedy” that he said he saw as his circumstances, and, all the while, his love of his job. His biggest error, he said, was the friends he had picked.

“I come out of the alleys of Chicago politics,” said Mr. Blagojevich, 52, who entered Democratic politics in 1992, first as a state representative, then a United States representative. “That’s a tough place. The politics there is not motivated by idealism or high purpose. It’s nuts and bolts, and you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I came up that way.”

Mr. Blagojevich, who began the morning tracked by news helicopters following his sport utility vehicle’s every turn en route to the airport, said he lately had been trying to remember how to be a regular person. Not long ago he made the state troopers who drove him let him take the wheel; he had last driven six years ago. He said he tried to sneak out through a neighbor’s back fence for a jog without his security team, wanting to know what it felt like.

In Springfield, as he waited to speak to the State Senate, Mr. Blagojevich sat in silence in his chandeliered office not far from the impeachment hearing room, nervously jiggling a leg and jotting changes to the speech he had written overnight in longhand on graph paper. He repeatedly called his wife, Patti. He carried his black hairbrush (the one he is known for insisting be available at all times) to his private bathroom behind a heavy wooden door. Minutes before he was to appear on the Senate floor, Mr. Blagojevich stood up and told an aide: “Let’s go home. Screw it. It won’t matter.” Then he walked out and made his speech.
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