- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | It was like going to the circus and finding out that the clown had called in sick.

Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on Monday skipped the opening day of his impeachment trial, which he dismissed as a “sham” devised by fellow Democrats who want him out so they can raise taxes on hard-working Illinoisans. But 59 state lawmakers nevertheless gathered under the crystal chandeliers of the garish Capitol’s Senate chamber to weigh the fate of the foul-mouthed governor, charged with trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama.

“Is the governor present?” state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald asked shortly after banging his gavel to open the tribunal. A silence as big as the governor’s hair followed. “Let the record reflect that the governor has failed to appear.”

Skipping opening day, though, didn’t stop the impish 52-year-old from making news - lots of it. In New York City for a dawn-to-dusk media blitz that included stints on “Good Morning America, “The View” and “Larry King Live,” the man known simply as Blago blasted into the headlines by declaring that he had considered choosing another single-named superstar to fill the open Senate seat: Oprah.

“She seemed to be someone who had helped Barack Obama in a significant way to become president,” Mr. Blagojevich said in a morning TV appearance.” But he added that “she probably wouldn’t take it, and then if you offered it to her, how would you do it in a way it wasn’t a gimmick to embarrass her.”

And Blago knows gimmicks, making news all day long by simply not showing up. Fighting for his political life, the governor is leaving nothing to chance: He has hired the Publicity Agency, a public relations firm whose most famous client is a police officer suspected of killing his third wife and disappearing his fourth wife.

Like Marion Barry - the D.C. mayor famously caught on tape smoking crack cocaine - before him, Blago has played the victim for weeks, claiming that what he says on hours and hours of profanity-laced covert FBI recordings is being taken “out of context.”

“I did nothing wrong. And if I did something wrong, I would have resigned,” he said Monday. Although caught on tape saying of the empty Obama seat “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing,” the boyish Blago said yesterday, “Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence?”

The impeachment tribunal in the Illinois Senate got under way precisely at noon, after giddy lawmakers crowded the Senate floor, handshaking and backslapping as they took their seats. The aged Chief Justice Fitzgerald, escorted up the aisle like a bride at a wedding, began the trial Monday by reminding senators they face “a solemn and serious business.” The lawmakers got down to business, but just 40 minutes later, they decided to break for lunch.

The frigid day began as a media circus, with reporters and camera crews lining up early outside the Senate chamber to battle for coveted press credentials. Male reporters were ordered to wear jackets and ties; senators were warned not to bring food to their desks and to use their laptop computers only “in connection with the impeachment trial proceedings” - rather than, as Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Pearson noted, to “play solitaire, as some often do.”

The senators played a passive role in the proceedings. More attention was paid to the two empty high-backed leather chairs at the front of the chamber, reserved for Mr. Blagojevich and his lawyer.

But Blago has been taking only his own counsel lately, deciding that while Illinois lawmakers undertook the first gubernatorial impeachment in the state’s long and storied history, he would blitz across Manhattan to tell anyone who’d listen just how bad his home state really is.

“I’m here in New York because I can’t get a fair hearing in Illinois,” Mr. Blagojevich said in between TV appearances. “The fix is in. I’m talking to Americans to let them know what’s happening in the land of Lincoln.”

After the lunch break, David Ellis, chief legal counsel for the Illinois House, quickly worked through the state’s case against Mr. Blagojevich. In conclusion, he said, “there is one person who could come in here and could refute any charges … that person is Governor Blagojevich.”

“Is the governor present?” Chief Justice Fitzgerald asked without irony. “Is counsel present in behalf of the governor?” A silence as big as the Illinois plains followed. “The record will reflect that the governor has chosen not to make an opening statement.”

But the governor, a thousand miles away, made a mighty closing statement to millions of TV viewers, and one thing is clear: While he might go on “Good Morning America” to rage against the dying of the light, Blago will not go gentle into that good night.

E-mail Joseph Curl.

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