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Rod Blagojevich takes stand: ‘I’m here today to tell you the truth’

Former Governor Rod Blagojevich his wife Patti leave court without comment after taking witness sthis own defense Thursday May 26

Former Governor Rod Blagojevich and his wife Patti leave court without comment after taking the witness stand in his own defense on Thursday, May 26, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 1, 2011 12:18AM

With all eyes on him, Rod Blagojevich stood up, buttoned his suit-coat, pecked his wife on the cheek, then made the walk across a federal courtroom.

After years of false promises and of making statements only in front of television cameras, the former governor of Illinois on Thursday raised his right hand and took an oath before sitting in the witness chair.

“I’m Rod Blagojevich,” he said to jurors with a hint of nervousness. “I used to be your governor, and I’m here today to tell you the truth.”

And over the next few hours he told them quite a bit.

He admitted his salty language on secret FBI tapes made him “an effin’ jerk,” confessed to having “a man crush” on Alexander Hamilton, then showed a video of himself and Jesse Jackson Jr. hugging it out.

Rod Blagojevich even choked up when talking about meeting his wife.

It was the day lawyers, reporters and perhaps jurors wondered would ever come.

The ex-governor spoke for more than four hours – most of it a retelling of his personal biography, from a failed Little League experience to a failed bar exam.

When it came to the substance of the charges, Blagojevich repeatedly denied allegations of shakedowns, including schemes against Rahm Emanuel and a horse-racing executive.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I believe deep in my heart that I did follow that oath,” Blagojevich said of his oath of office as governor. “I protected [people of Illinois] from some burdens, like higher taxes.” He later said: “I wanted to be the best possible governor I could be.”

Early in his remarks, Blagojevich told jurors he regretted the repeated f-bombs in the secret FBI audio recordings they had heard, saying one of his daughters told him that morning to watch his language when she wished him good luck on the stand.

“It makes you wince,” Blagojevich said of himself. “When I hear myself saying that on tape, I’m an effin’ jerk, and I apologize.”

The longtime politician was repeatedly urged to get back on track as he easily launched into history lessons and once even recited a short poem.

The promise of his testimony alone sparked renewed interest in his retrial, drawing legal buffs and the curious alike who hoped to catch a glimpse of the historic moment. A line of people snaked down a courthouse hallway, with some arriving before 5 a.m.

Throughout his personal narrative, Blagojevich kept to key themes: that he dreamed big, like his Serbian immigrant, blue-collar father, ignoring sage advice and sometimes straying from reality. He fancied himself someone who pulled himself up from his bootstraps, ascending to governor after repeated failures in sports and academics. He spent considerable time describing his close relationship to former top aide Lon Monk, setting up a betrayal scenario down the road. Monk testified against him.

And despite law school, working in private law practice and as a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, Blagojevich tried downplaying his knowledge of the law, given that he’s in a legal predicament.

“I can’t say I came out of law school knowing much about law,” Blagojevich said.

Blagojevich did his best to paint a Dickensian picture of his hardscrabble childhood in a five-room apartment on the Northwest Side. He would lie on the living room floor reading the encyclopedias his mom bought with a loan, he said.

For three years his father lived in Alaska doing grunt work on the pipeline. Blagojevich eventually joined him.

Blagojevich admitted to developing “insecurities” as he tried to keep up with the Khaki-wearing rich kids at Northwestern University. A “Saturday Night Fever” fan, he wore polyester and quickly realized he was out of place.

“I always felt that these kids at Northwestern, they came from wealthier families, they came from better schools, I always felt a little intimidated that they were a lot smarter than me,” he said. “I was afraid that I wouldn’t measure up to the other kids.”

He said he was flawed, vain.

“Those were the days when your hairbrush was an extension of your hand,” Blagojevich said. He dropped the Polyster but agreed with his attorney Aaron Goldstein that his famous heft of hair was stuck in the 1970s.

While attending Pepperdine Law School in Malibu, Blagojevich said he was distracted — by history books, not the beaches.

“I had a man-crush on Alexander Hamilton,” said Blagojevich, who has a well-known tendency to talk history.

His grades slipped to a failing average.

“That was very embarrassing to me,” Blagojevich said of landing on academic probation his first year of law school. “I felt like I’d let my parents down because they’d work so hard.”

When asked to describe whom he met while in his 20s and as a young lawyer, he looked across the room at Patti, pointed to her, but was too emotional to say her name.

Patti Blagojevich burst into tears, lowering her head, her brother passing his hand over her back.

Rod Blagojevich was working to build a rapport with jurors. Stopping in mid-sentence to say “God Bless You,” to one sneezing juror.

On a few occasions, Blagojevich appeared to try to make a joke or funny observation and while he laughed, most of the jurors stared back unsmiling.

He won over one female juror when he described how he “thought politics was a safe profession,” and then a few others when he talked about moving back in with his mom and aunt while delivering pizzas in college.

When his lawyer launched into the meat of the charges, Blagojevich’s denials began to fly. He’s said he was confused and uninformed about a grant to the Chicago Academy in Emanuel’s district. He did ask lobbyist John Wyma for a fund-raiser from Emanuel’s brother Ari, but said there was never an attempt to link the grant to the contribution, in contradiction to at least two witnesses.

He rebutted an accusation lodged just the day before by his own witness, Jackson.

Jurors watched a 10-second video of Jackson and Blagojevich hugging at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, suggesting that maybe their relationship that year wasn’t “frosty, at best,” as Jackson had described.

Blagojevich denied the South Side congressman’s allegation that Blagojevich wanted $25,000 in exchange for appointing Jackson’s wife to a state post.

Blagojevich said he had “absolutely no recollection of his talking to me, ever, ever of appointing his wife for the Illinois Lottery.”

The person he did name, Blagojevich said, was recommended by Jackson’s father.

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