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Well-crafted apology doesn’t save Blagojevich from stiff sentence

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich left speaks reporters as his wife Patti center listens federal building Chicago Wednesday Dec. 7

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, left, speaks to reporters as his wife Patti, center, listens at the federal building in Chicago, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, after being sentenced for 14 years on 18 corruption counts, including trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. At right is defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

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Updated: January 9, 2012 10:14AM

Rod Blagojevich gave the performance of a lifetime Wednesday in federal court, but it couldn’t save the former governor from the consequences of his many backstage failures.

Grabbing the lectern with two hands to steady himself, Blagojevich told U.S. District Judge James Zagel how “incredibly sorry” he was for the “terrible mistakes” that led to his conviction on 18 corruption counts.

“I was the governor, and I should have known better,” Blagojevich said in possibly the most truthful words he has ever spoken.

While the apology was carefully parsed and fell considerably short of the full-throated admission of guilt we might have preferred to hear, it was far more contrition than Blagojevich had ever shown in public since his arrest three years ago this week. And that was enough to allow Zagel to give Blagojevich credit for accepting responsibility for the crimes captured on FBI wiretaps.

The apology probably shaved a year or two off Blagojevich’s sentence, though that hardly softened the blow at the defense table from the harsh reality of the 14-year prison term that Zagel ended up handing out.

That reality, by my rough calculations, is that after Blagojevich reports to prison in February he will next be home for Christmas in December 2023. Even that might require a day pass from the halfway house where he will finish out the last months of his sentence.

That’s a long time — no matter whether you think it’s too long or not long enough.

Blagojevich will be 67 by then and ready to collect Social Security. He will have missed three presidential elections — the very campaigns in which he once envisioned himself competing.

Those were the stages on which Blagojevich saw himself performing as a young man pursuing a career in law and politics, practicing his lines like the heroes of the movies he enjoyed and like the politician he appeared to emulate in every way but his politics, Ronald Reagan.

Blagojevich never saw himself standing in front of a federal judge to deliver an “allocution” — the legal term for the remarks a defendant is allowed to make at sentencing.

By calling his 20-minute talk a performance, I don’t mean to suggest it was an act, at least not any more than any politician is acting when he makes a big speech or when a lawyer delivers an important argument.

But if you appreciate a courtroom for its real-life drama, then it was hard to imagine a more gripping scene than the twice-elected governor summoning all his skills to plead for mercy before a hushed courtroom.

Blagojevich stood before Zagel without notes, his back to the spectator gallery. He’d clearly thought hard about what he wanted to say and how to say it, but it wasn’t as scripted as one of his memorized speeches. There were no famous quotations like the Rudyard Kipling line he would deliver later downstairs to the press.

Instead, it was just Blagojevich looking at Zagel and earnestly trying to swallow his pride and explain himself, how he’d fought hard against the allegations because he didn’t believe he’d broken the law and how it wasn’t until he tried to explain the jury’s guilty verdict to his oldest daughter that he began to realize he would also have to accept his own responsibility.

I wrote previously that a sentence of 10 to 12 years would have been more than sufficient punishment for Blagojevich, and I stand by that, although I can see why Zagel thought he needed to come down harder.

Some readers chose to equate my argument that the 15- to 20-year prison term sought by prosecutors would have been excessive with me somehow believing Blagojevich’s crimes weren’t serious. Hardly.

I just have a different opinion about the proper sentence for those serious crimes. While I will shed no tears for Blagojevich, I do believe that by the year 2020 a lot more folks will be asking themselves whether he still belongs in prison.

“This needs to stop,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said afterward of the never-ending public corruption in Illinois.

Absolutely, it needs to stop. But it won’t, not from prosecutions alone, nor from stiff prison terms, which is why we will need Fitzgerald and his successors to remain vigilant, while the rest of us vote smarter.

Elvis may have left the building, but there are still plenty of bad actors backstage.

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