The distinguished federal judge in the trial of former Gov. Dead Meat didn’t exactly say that politicians on the witness stand can’t shut the heck up.
But that’s what he meant.
“Because the last thing they want is dead air,” said U.S. District Judge James Zagel.
Dead air frightens politicians. It gives voters and juries time to think. So former Gov. Rod Blagojevich filled the dead air Thursday, testifying in his own defense at his federal corruption trial.
He chattered on and on to that jury of 11 women and one man, in a desperate campaign for a get-out-of-jail card. Dead Meat said he didn’t shake people down and commit those alleged crimes. And he apologized for his profanity.
“I’d like to apologize to the women and men for these terrible words,” he said. “When I hear myself on tape, swearing like that, I’m an effing jerk and I apologize for that.”
So Rod filled the jury with stories involving emotion, about his feelings and his fears. He was the star of his own Lifetime movie.
He explained that he’s ashamed of his narcissism. He reveled in his childhood heartbreaks. He described how self-conscious he was as a young man when he realized — all clad in polyester and leather at Northwestern University — that he didn’t have the right clothes.
“As I got older,” he said wistfully, “I started wearing less polyester.”
He chattered about how he didn’t make the high school basketball team, how he almost flunked out of law school, that first job as a shoeshine boy, the summer as a Little League benchwarmer stuck in right field, all of it reinforcing the image of the wounded boy. (Ladies, did you get that?)
And my favorite, Rod sitting on the living room floor, devouring his World Book encyclopedia, his mom watching her TV shows, telling him to read about strong women like Florence Nightingale. (Ladies, did you get that?)
He also told a touching story about Little Rod’s first encounter with the saga of George Washington and the cherry tree, and how George could never tell a lie. Words can’t do it justice.
But that boy from the Northwest Side who loved George Washington grew up and became the political climber who married the ward boss’s daughter. And then he ran for office with a patronage army of tough guys watching his back.
Some of that muscle came from a group of knuckle draggers called “The Coalition for Better Government,” which included felons on the city payroll. Among these was John “Quarters” Boyle, the guy who stole all those quarters from the tollway, then got a city job after prison and then served another prison stretch for bribery.
The Coalition for Better Government was probably what George Washington was thinking about, when his men froze their toes off at Valley Forge.
But how could the jury hope to know that? Rod wasn’t going to tell them.
Instead, Rod told them how he met his wife, Patti, who wore that red dress.
He stopped talking and choked up. He looked at his wife sitting across the courtroom, and she choked up too. (Ladies, did you see?)
So everybody was watching Rod and Patti, except for Rod’s lawyer, Sheldon Sorosky. Sorosky was looking across the way, at the juror closest to his client, the bartender, the woman with the hoop earrings.
As Patti and Rod stared wordlessly across that universe of time, the juror pressed her hand to her throat and left it there.
Blagojevich doesn’t care what I think because I’m not on the jury. He’s concentrating on the 11 women. One female juror saved him the last time. One may save him this time too.
It is extremely foolish to try to interpret what jurors are thinking. And it’s quite possible that the Patti in the red dress story meant nothing to the juror. Or, she might tell us weeks from now that the red dress story was so over the top that it turned her off completely. So who knows? I don’t. Neither do you.
But there were real tears there in the eyes of Rod and Patti — or at least there was real moisture there — so call me a sucker, but I think they actually did feel something.
And what couple in their place wouldn’t feel it? You could call it the realization of what’s to come, or an understanding of what they’ve already lost. Or you could call it fear.
They’ve driven us crazy with their antics, and that ostentatious $400,000 wardrobe, and Rod and Patti on those ridiculous reality shows.
Patti ate the bugs. Dead Meat endured the smarmy insults of Donald Trump. And you could see the desperation deepen in them on Thursday.
Dead Meat’s a fighter. Surely he can see what’s coming. The huggy Oprah questions will end. Federal prosecutors will begin the cross-examination and pummel him with recording after recording after recording.
They will try to beat him to death with his own voice.
The cross-examination is the reason politicians charged with corruption rarely, if ever, take the witness stand in their own defense. Sometimes, the defendants don’t want to answer the questions. Often, they have no choice.
Because the last thing they want is dead air.
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may send him e-mail at jskasstribune.com.