Blago’s New York Moment

Reality star and fallen Illinois governor arrives in the Big Apple to clear his name

“I can spin a basketball on all four fingers of my right hand,” Rod Blagojevich said. “The hardest transition is from the little finger to the ring finger because it’s got to go up.” Blagojevich held his hand in the air to demonstrate. Jimmy Breslin sat a few feet away and nodded. It made sense.

Blagojevich said he had learned that trick decades ago, growing up in Chicago as a Serbian-American. It was one of the few ball-handling skills you could practice inside a cramped apartment. “Pete Maravich was an inspiration,” said Blagojevich, referring to the NBA All-Star. “One of my many dreams that never came true.”

It was around 2 p.m. on March 18, and Blagojevich, the erstwhile governor of Illinois under federal investigation for corruption, and Breslin, the erstwhile chief of New York journalism, were sitting at a table, tucked in the rear of the Back Stage Eatery on Fifth Avenue near 47th Street. Lunch hour was long over, and the place was deserted.

Blagojevich was wearing a navy suit. In person, his thick black hair is as arresting as it is on TV—a bristling obsidian ridge that stands out over his sun-deprived forehead with the ostensible heft of a load-bearing wall.

Blagojevich, 53, was in New York for a 24-hour media blitz. He had arrived the night before, dropped his bags at the W, and headed over to Breslin’s apartment near Columbus Circle. Breslin, who is currently working on a book about Blagojevich, served up a home-style dinner. It was a beautiful spring night, and Blagojevich felt a touch of nostalgia. He had never lived in New York City. But not long ago, he spent an undisclosed duration competing in the NBC reality show, The Celebrity Apprentice—the first episode of which had just aired three nights earlier.

Blagojevich could imagine someday moving to New York, maybe near Central Park, where he liked to jog. Also, the zoo was great. The perfect place to take his two daughters. When he was a kid, his parents sometimes took him to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Years later, as governor, while wrestling with a state budget, he managed to corral a nice chunk of change for his favorite zoo.

“I’ve spent my whole adult life working for and serving people,” said Blagojevich, who was impeached in January 2009. “Among the many things that are difficult with this wilderness period I’m in—I miss that feeling.”

Earlier that morning, Blagojevich had appeared on The Wendy Williams Show. Afterward, he did an interview with Access Hollywood. At 4 p.m., he would talk about health care reform with Neil Cavuto on Fox News. Then he would pick up his bags and fly home. In the meantime, he still had a couple hours to kill at the deli. Breslin was resting his chin on the back of his chair and periodically jotting down notes on a pink piece of paper folded into rectangles.

For years, when Blagojevich’s life was going swimmingly, he rose through the ranks of Illinois state politics and blissfully ignored most of the television landscape. He never watched political news. He didn’t like all the second-guessing. “I watched a lot of SportsCenter,” Blagojevich said. And most of the TV world was happy to ignore him.

That changed forever in December 2008, when a team of FBI agents arrived at his house and arrested him on a series of charges, including the allegation that Blagojevich had tried to sell the empty U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Stepping out of his front door in a black Nike tracksuit, Blagojevich perp-walked into TV infamy. Henceforth, there would be no more ignoring the ravenous cameras.

On June 3, Blagojevich will begin his criminal trial. The impeached governor believes he is innocent and that the trial will ultimately clear him in a court of law. Meantime, he is laboring to clear his good name. TV—having long since displaced church as the venue for achieving redemption in American public life—plays a central role in the process. If Americans will let you into their living room, then there’s a chance they’ll let you into their hearts.

From the moment of his arrest, Blagojevich struggled to cope with the sudden crush of demand from news bookers and reality-show producers. Who were these people? Eventually, Blagojevich hooked up with a publicist specializing in crisis management named Glenn Selig. “Just as I was marching into the abyss, Glenn came into my life and helped me navigate,” Blagojevich said.

“Early on, there was a method to the madness, but I don’t think a lot of people understood what was going on,” Selig said. “People thought he was crazy. People thought I was crazy. But there really was a method.”

Selig said that from the start, the strategy was to push Blagojevich back into the public eye. “To fight this, people have to understand who he is and what makes him tick,” Selig said. “You don’t do that by hiding in the corner.”

At the same time, Blagojevich was facing mounting legal bills and needed money. TV could help with that, too. Selig vetted a handful of potentially lucrative offers. Most were too outrageous to consider. For example, at one point, Dennis Hof, the Nevada bordello operator, approached Blagojevich about joining the long-running HBO series Cathouse, set in Hof’s Moonlite BunnyRanch. Selig didn’t think that working as an understudy pimp at a TV whorehouse was the right positioning for his client.

More tempting was a production company interested in an all-access reality show about the Blagojevich family. “Me buttering my daughter’s toast, and all that stuff,” Blagojevich said. “They offered good compensation. But it didn’t feel right to us.”

Shortly thereafter, Blagojevich warmed to another idea. The producers of the ABC reality show I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, in which a handful of famous people square off in a series of wilderness competitions, wanted Blagojevich for its second U.S. season.

As part of the criminal investigation, Blagojevich, however, had been forced to surrender his passport. He filed an appeal, but the judge turned him down. So the producers came up with an alternative plan. Send your wife!

In the end, Patti Blagojevich performed admirably on the series, and a Montana woman even started a Patti fan club—evidence that the media strategy was working.

Blagojevich’s reality-show debut came on March 14, with the first episode of The Celebrity Apprentice 3. He appeared in a New York City diner alongside fellow celebrity cast members wearing a “little sous-chef hat,” and serving up $100 hamburgers to the likes of Joan Rivers. The latter event did not go smoothly. Rivers blamed her cold meal on the governor’s lousy service. Video evidence suggested that Blagojevich’s dereliction of duty was a result of talking too much with other patrons about his own innocence. In the second episode, women on the street mistook Blagojevich for Donny Osmond, and Sharon Osbourne suggested his eyes were set too close together on his face.

In terms of the overall PR strategy, this counted as a major win. “I think now, it’s working,” Selig said. “As evidenced by walking down the street. You can come with us and see how people react. What is resonating is who he really is, not what was portrayed at that news conference.”

“I do love that he is always in character,” MSNBC anchor and Blago-aficionado Willie Geist said. “The people coming into the diner probably don’t know quite who he is. He introduces himself and says, ‘I’m Rod Blagojevich and I’m innocent of all charges.’”

“He’s not Eliot Spitzer, who did these horrible dark things to his wife, and was living a secret life,” Geist added. “He’s just kind of a character and a clown”

Back at the deli, Blagojevich’s spirits were high. Vindication, he felt confident, was around the corner. “I would not do any of this if I was guilty. I don’t have that kind of chutzpah.”

It was time to head over to Fox News. Back on the street, Blagojevich was in campaign mode. He made eye contact with a fellow in a blue blazer. They shook hands. The man asked what the solution was to state budget deficits. Cutting administrative costs was a part of the answer, Blagojevich said, not raising taxes. Pulling out a camera phone, the man snapped some pictures.

Another jeweler approached the governor. What a coincidence. Blagojevich knew his brother. He introduced the jeweler to the man in the blazer. “Tell your brother he’s a mensch,” Blagojevich said. He looked around. “Where’s Jimmy?”