CHICAGO - Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave what amounted to the campaign speech of his life Thursday directed at just 12 voters - members of the jury who will decide whether he misused his powers.
And like the master politician he was, Blagojevich gave a glib and engaging performance, presenting himself as the humble and self-effacing son of immigrants.
"I'm Rod Blagojevich, I used to be your governor, and I'm here today to tell you the truth," Blagojevich said from the witness stand before launching into a version of his life story so laden with detail that it might thrill the most ardent trivia buff.
For more than five hours, an animated Blagojevich looked squarely at jurors as he talked about everything from his failings at Little League to his 1970s penchant for polyester disco wear.
He also touched on the early years of a political career that crashed in the fall of 2008 when he was allegedly recorded extorting campaign donors and trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich didn't get to that crucial turn in his narrative by the time court adjourned, but he will be back on the stand Friday.
His testimony was also marked by occasional tears and attempts at humor, which did not appear to elicit much reaction from jurors. There were also apologies and denials. And there was a sense that one of the most controversial politicians in Illinois history finally had his back against the wall.
Testifying was a step Blagojevich did not take last summer when a jury was able to convict him on only one count of lying to the FBI, deadlocking on 23 other criminal counts and leading to the current retrial. This time around, Blagojevich decided to make his own case, choking up as he discussed his hardworking parents.
"It gives you a certain sense of values and certain sense of helping others," Blagojevich said. "I think I picked up my dad's propensity to dream. . . . I got a chance to be governor of the fifth-biggest state in America, and I always thought my parents were part of that, helping from heaven."
The purpose was to portray a softer vision of Blagojevich for jurors than the foulmouthed, scheming politician they have heard on wiretaps.
Some of the interaction between Blagojevich and his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, had a decidedly scripted flavor, such as when the former governor was asked how he did playing baseball as a kid.
"One for 12 that year," Blagojevich said of his one year in Little League, apparently spent mostly on the bench. "I'll never forget it was a single between the shortstop and third baseman."
And there were confessional moments as well. Blagojevich acknowledged that he flunked the bar exam the first time he took it and that he doesn't jog for his health.