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Blagojevich living the 'reverse American dream'

Former governor, unrepentant but bruised, reflects on prison life

The October edition of Chicago Magazine features an interview with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. More than 5 years after he went to prison for corruption, the former Illinois governor speaks out for the first time since beginning his sentence.
The October edition of Chicago Magazine features an interview with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. More than 5 years after he went to prison for corruption, the former Illinois governor speaks out for the first time since beginning his sentence.

Federal inmate 40892-424 has his voice back.

More than 5 years after he went to prison for corruption, the former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is speaking out for the first time since beginning his sentence.

Details of Blagojevich’s first prison interview were published online late Monday by Chicago magazine and will appear in its October issue, done in a series of phone calls and emails over the summer with writer David Bernstein.

The interviews paint a picture of a former governor who remains unrepentant and unbowed, if bruised, as he serves his 14-year-sentence. Among the tidbits on Blagojevich’s life inside a federal correctional facility in Colorado:

• His prison ID was often a theft target when he first arrived because inmates believed they could sell it on the outside.

• He doesn’t have internet access or keep up with any news that closely, but “I know about the murder rate in Chicago.”

• He doesn’t watch many movies, either, recalling seeing “Lincoln,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis recently and “Ghost,” the old Patrick Swayze film.

• His prison nickname is “Gov,” and while he still reads and jogs religiously, he doesn’t follow politics.

• He makes $8 a month in what he calls “the reverse American Dream.”

In all, the magazine interview contains passages that sound very much like the Blagojevich Chicago knows well. Right down to the spouting of literary, sports and historical references, including his recounting that disputes over a fan on hot nights in a cell were solved when a “Hobbesian state of nature emerged.”

And while Blagojevich’s criminal case was considered off-limits for the interview because he plans a final pitch to the U.S. Supreme Court, there was little contrition in his new statements. “It’s convinced me further that I know what I’m doing is right,” he says of his incarceration.

“I firmly believe that I never crossed any lines in seeking to raise campaign contributions,” he told Bernstein. “To say otherwise … would be to dishonor myself, setting a cowardly example for my daughters.”

Blagojevich was convicted of crimes including trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that belonged to Barack Obama, and was sentenced to prison. Five of the 18 counts – those related to his efforts to secure a Cabinet seat in exchange for the Senate seat – were later overturned by an appeals court. His sentence, though, remained the same.

Throughout the new interviews is a sense of the pain the former governor has endured, eroding his persona as a politician who could not be bowed.

He describes spending long stretches in thought, with a growing feeling of separation from his two daughters and longing to be with his wife, Patti, who was also interviewed.

“The sharpness of the pain that was so intense at the beginning – where sometimes you felt you would never feel anything but that pain – has with the passing of all these years, slowly and imperceptibly aged into a sadness that has found a home inside of me,” Blagojevich is quoted as saying.

In the interview, Blagojevich describes how he has gradually moved from a medium-security area of FCI Englewood to an area that doesn’t even have exterior walls. Bernstein writes that inmates there have even been known to leave at night and buy cigarettes.

Prison life, punctuated by “bad sounds and bad smells,” is described as breaking down into pockets of inmates self-separated by race. Blagojevich talks of turning down an offer of protection from white supremacists and says he gets along better with street criminals with tougher city backgrounds than the average con artist he finds there.

And he describes an episode where he teamed with a tall, thin African-American drug dealer from Chicago who reminded him of Morgan Freeman (see: “The Shawshank Redemption”) to try to break down the prison’s segregated ways.

He and “Mr. B” made a point to sit together every day at lunch, Blagojevich recounts, but it turned out no one particularly cared.

The cover of the magazine shows Blagojevich, 60, with a shock of white hair – a striking contrast to the more youthful, dark-haired image he once projected.

For her part, Patti Blagojevich, who pointed out to Bernstein that Forbes once ranked FCI Englewood as one of the “12 best places to go to prison,” describes the heavy toll her husband’s sentence has had on their daughters Amy, 21, and Annie, 14.

She has stayed strong for them and helped them through missing their father and stinging remarks from fellow students at school, she said.

“I’ve got my nervous breakdown scheduled for, like, 10 years from now,” Patti Blagojevich said in the piece.

She recounted how her father, longtime Chicago politician Dick Mell, has helped her family financially, although his relationship with her husband remains chilly. And she said she plans to continue to stand by her man, at least up until any point where Blagojevich decides to go back into politics when he is released in 2024.

“He’ll have to do that with his second wife. No thanks,” she says.

Blagojevich himself makes no pointed promises either way, though he does not completely rule it out. Bernstein says when he asked about a political comeback, Blagojevich first laughed but also added he has read Nelson Mandela’s biography twice.

He’s not comparing himself to the man who went from a prison in South Africa to president of the country, he is careful to say, “other than to say that through him and a lot of others I get inspiration.”

It’s hard to know exactly where Blagojevich thinks he can go when he’s released – beginning perhaps to a halfway house in 2023, when he is a senior citizen.

For now he just points to those who have made the greatest comebacks from the darkest places, “and have been able to work their way to a good place on the mountain, not necessarily on top of the mountain, but maybe way up high.”


©2017 Chicago Tribune

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