There was a time when Rod Blagojevich spent thousands of dollars on Oxxford suits and baby blue silk neckties. And there was a time more recently when he gave four postage stamps to a fellow prisoner in exchange for ironing his prison uniform.
The old life of Blagojevich. The new life of Blagojevich. In his first set of interviews since his incarceration more than five years ago, the defrocked governor — and his wife, Patti — talked to Chicago Magazine’s David Bernstein about life in prison and the struggles of keeping their family connected. It’s a story less about the optimistic Blagojevich who exercises and reads and works on his case, and more about the impact of his corruption convictions on those closest to him. What’s palpable is the worst price he pays for his federal felonies. Not the enduring shame. Not his lost potential. But his relationship with his family, especially his daughters.
Illinois politicians and inside players, read the article carefully, then calculate: How much are a few years with your family worth? Is an ethical lapse here and there an acceptable risk? A contract for a crony? A vacation on a donor’s dime? A kickback?
Whether you agree with Blagojevich that his scheming was typical horse trading, or with prosecutors that he criminally exploited his job, this is indisputable: The one-time Democratic Party superstar took alarming risks, even when he knew he was under investigation.
In his 2009 book, “The Governor,” composed after his arrest and before his first trial, Blagojevich spent 264 pages defending himself, pleading for fairness and exposing other Illinois pols whom he believed crossed ethical lines and got away with it. He wrote of his daughters and the possibility — he believed remote — of being sent away.
At the time of his pre-dawn arrest in December 2008, both girls were asleep in their beds, blissfully unaware that they would lose constant contact with their dad. That time is here
Patti Blagojevich and the girls still live in the family’s Ravenswood Manor home, a 1920s Mediterranean-style house they renovated shortly after Blagojevich was elected governor. In a photo accompanying the article in Chicago Magazine — which is owned by this newspaper’s corporate parent — Patti Blagojevich poses in her husband’s library, with leather couches, a white crown molding-trimmed fireplace and scarlet, fabric wallpaper. She describes single parenthood as “a tough row to hoe,” adding: “But I can’t indulge in feeling sorry for myself. My kids are sad and anxious, like they have PTSD. It’s been really hard for them. I can’t let myself go there. I’ve got my nervous breakdown scheduled for, like, 10 years from now when Annie’s out of college. That’s when I can fall apart.”
She describes how attached the girls are to her, checking in on her throughout the day; they worry about their sole caretaker. And that’s partly why they don’t visit their father as much as they used to. Traveling to Colorado and spending time with him forces an emotional transition when they return home. They realize what they’re missing. Almost-monthly visits the first year of his imprisonment have wound down to about four a year. The girls are growing apart from their father.
“At this point, nobody ever wants to go,” Patti Blagojevich admits.
Blagojevich says he writes the girls long emails, some of which they don’t even read.
Which is worse? Never seeing your children while in prison? Or experiencing the painful, slow death of your connection to them? That’s the steepest price of all. He’s becoming irrelevant.
During his governorship, the Blagojeviches spent $400,000 on clothing and furs. They mingled with the wealthy. They craved it. They rang up debt, planning to pay it off when he landed a lucrative job outside of government.
Today he can hardly afford four stamps. His phone calls are monitored. His visitors are screened. His movements are regulated. His clothing is restricted.
Blagojevich remains one of Illinois’ most puzzling stories. From governor to prisoner. How did I get here, he wondered during his first summer in prison while sharing cramped bunk space with sweaty, angry felons.
He got there by violating the public’s trust. So read every word, Illinois pols. As we’ve asked here often and always found an answer: Who’s next?