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Dispatches From the Blagojevich Trial (Part 2)

My encounter with Blago’s wife … in the courthouse bathroom.

 Click here to read Margo Howard’s first dispatch from the Blagojevich trial.

Chicago—Well, the games have begun. That is, the trial that has the potential, per political consultant Kevin Madden, “to be the ultimate clown-car spectacle”: United States v. Blagojevich, et al. (The part of “et al”will be played by the former governor’s brother, Rob.) There’s a very large press contingent here, this being about as jazzy as corruption cases get. I guess the prototype would be Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards, another “colorful” governor convicted of extortion and racketeering in 2001.  

The usual suspects are present (networks, wire services, large newspapers), and I suppose the wild cards would be Telemundo, Jimmy Breslin, and me. Breslin is the dean of flamboyant newspaper coverage. He said he “couldn’t pass this one up” when he read that Blago tried extorting a children’s hospital executive in exchange for legislation they wanted. He is writing a book about Illinois’ most recent miscreant.

There are 24 criminal counts, perhaps the best known being the attempt to “auction” Obama’s vacated Senate seat, which we know from taped phone calls Blago regarded as “bleeping golden.” There’s also the charge of lying to the FBI, along with a number of other things his mother would disapprove of. The first order of business, of course, is to find 12 good men and women who can sift through two versions of evidence, publicity, personal bias, Illinois political history, and idiosyncratic ideas about politics-as-usual versus shakedowns and open palms. And do bear in mind that the defense does not really need 12 people to agree with them; they only need one to hang the jury.

What is interesting, after having read so much about this legal pageant, is to actually see the people you’ve read about. Two of the defense attorneys, for example, Sam Adams, pere at fils, look like a pair of sumo wrestlers. They in no way resemble the government’s team of prosecutors who could pass for Ivy League gentlemen sipping at the bar of justice. And of course there’s Blago, himself. I think I had been so fixated on his hair that I’d failed to notice that one side of his face gives the impression that he is storing nuts for the winter. Mrs. Blago sits nearby on the first bench, though I’m sure much to her relief she’s not at the defense table.

Of course seating a jury is not easy. Mercifully, the question, “Have you heard about anything about this trial or its participants?” is not being asked. It is assumed only the comatose or those doing field work in the backwaters of Asia for a year and a half would not know about all things Blagojevich.

I will not bore you with every potential juror’s description and answers to questions—but a few made the ears perk up. #169 volunteered that her opinion of pols was that “they were motivated by ego, power, and money.” She felt she could, however, put this judgment aside and listen only to the evidence. #174 had written on her questionnaire, which was read out loud by the judge, that she “did not approve of the demeanor of one of the defendants.” I’m going to take a flyer here and guess that she wasn’t referring to Defendant #2.

There was only one prospective juror who had neither read nor heard any news of l’affaire Blago, and that’s because she only listened to Christian radio. Then she added, “God is the ultimate judge of our sins.” She said, however, she could be fair, perhaps implying that if she erred God would make it right.

The judge asked almost everyone the same three questions: 1) Do you give to your church? 2) What do you do in your leisure time? 3) Did your father have a business? As for questions 1 and 3, I have no idea what those answers told him. Regarding people’s leisure time, most of the answers made me think of beauty pageant contestants saying they liked to swim, scuba dive, read, run, and bicycle.

While all this was going on, Blago was intently taking notes on a legal pad. Writing, writing, writing. But think about it: what else could he do? He couldn’t go to sleep, and he couldn’t just sit there and risk looking bored. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then I suppose a legal pad is the last refuge of a defendant.

The highlight of the day for me was my mini-visit with Patti Blagojevich. As we waited in line in the ladies room, I asked her, “What is this like for you?” “Like a campaign,” she said. “It’s tough to hear people tell lies about you.” This tack is in perfect sync with her husband’s, who, every time I see him on television, is talking about the lies told about him. Hence his oft repeated declaration: “The truth will set you free.”

I asked Patti right before we went our separate ways (well, she into her stall, me into mine), “Will you be here every day?” “I’ll try,” she said, “we have two little girls at home, and it’s hard.” It is also impossible, because I checked with another judge’s law clerk. Because she is to be called as a witness, she will not be allowed in the courtroom once the jury has been sworn in and the actual trial begins. A fun postscript to my exiting the ladies room was that a woman reporter said to me, sotto voce, “Lady Macbeth.” This is not very Shakespearean, but I feel certain the evidentiary part of the trial will be, in Defendant #1’s words, “bleeping golden.”

Margo Howard is a syndicated advice columnist for Creators Syndicate and Last year, she covered the Clark Rockefeller trial for The New Republic. 

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