Rod Blagojevich apologizes for remark about Barack Obama

January 12th, 2010 by

www.chicagotribune.com – Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has long thought his best chance of beating the sweeping federal charges against him is to take his case directly to the public, whether it’s been through dozens of media interviews, writing a book or just glad-handing the man on the street.

But things haven’t always gone swimmingly. On Monday, Blagojevich moved swiftly to apologize for saying in an Esquire magazine interview that he is “blacker than Barack Obama.”

Even before many had heard about the interview, Blagojevich was standing outside his Northwest Side home pointing out that it was a dumb thing to say.

“What I said was stupid, stupid, stupid,” said Blagojevich, using the word 16 times in a few minutes. “I deeply apologize for the way that was said and having said it. Obviously, I am not blacker than President Obama.”

It has been part of the Blagojevich defense strategy to give the public as much of the former governor as it can take — and then some. It has surely crossed his mind that he is speaking to prospective jurors when he appears on a seemingly endless cycle of TV news shows or when he takes a crack at reality television, as he will do this spring.

And this is not his first gaffe. Last month, Blagojevich left some wondering what — or if — he was thinking when he signed a copy of the U.S. Constitution with his trademark “fn golden” line.

A student at a University of Chicago book signing asked him to sign near the 17th Amendment, which covers the appointment of senators. Blagojevich is, of course, accused of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama, among other charges.

But in his remarks to Esquire, Blagojevich may have come dangerously close to alienating himself with a group he hopes to have on his side: African-Americans. He has long gone out of his way to portray himself as a staunch ally of the black community, well before naming Roland Burris to Obama’s seat.

Just after his arrest in December 2008, he very publicly invited a group of black ministers to pray with him, and even Monday after his apology, he appeared on WVON to apologize again to that station’s mostly black listeners.

His criminal-defense team was quick to try to explain what Blagojevich meant in his comments to Esquire. Attorney Sam Adam Jr. said his client was just trying to voice frustration that so many politicians had made unfilled promises to the black community.

“He wishes that he could still be working for them,” Adam said. “That’s what he was trying to say. It was a stupid metaphor for a real frustration.”

But Blagojevich allegedly also managed to use a slur directed at women, apparently aiming the barb at Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, though he denied Monday using the four-letter word with the interviewer.

Veteran criminal-defense lawyers who know full well what Blagojevich has been intending to do by staying in the public eye were startled by the Esquire material — especially the Obama remark.

Less shocking, they said, was the ex-governor’s immediate apology.

“I think he realized he stepped in a pile of dog poo,” said attorney Joseph Lopez, who has a reputation for making eyebrow-raising statements himself on behalf of clients.

Blagojevich was clearly trying to send a message that he identifies with African-Americans and understands their world, Lopez said. But the remark backfired, the lawyer said.

Blagojevich’s mea culpa comes two days after Senate President Harry Reid, D- Nevada, also apologized for comments he made about the president’s skin color. A new book alleges that Reid once referred to Obama in 2008 as a “light-skinned” African-American “with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”

The Esquire debacle represents a wasted opportunity for the ex-governor to proclaim his innocence, but his public-relations strategy focuses on more than just clearing his name. It also stresses the importance of making money for the cash-strapped Blagojevich, as evidenced by his recent campaign of high jinks. In the last six months alone, he has sung an Elvis Presley song at a block party, scribbled the profanity on the U.S. Constitution and had late-night comedians mock him to his face.

And while the jester-for-hire routine helps pay the large mortgage on his Ravenswood Manor home — he told Esquire he made about $10,000 for singing Presley’s “Treat Me Nice” at a Streeterville party last summer — it often casts doubts about his PR strategy.

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer began rehabilitating his image by teaching college courses and penning opinion pieces on the country’s troubled economy. Blagojevich has appeared on Howard Stern covering topics that included breast sizes and prison rape.

“He’s ensuring that everyone is talking about him, but it doesn’t mean that they respect him,” said Teresa Mastin, a communications professor at DePaul University. “I’d love to sit down with him and talk to him about his strategy. I’d ask him, ‘Are you delusional?’ It’s just strange behavior.”

Jonathan Bernstein, a California-based crisis-management expert, said he holds up Blagojevich’s PR strategy as an example of what not to do when giving lectures or meeting with clients.

“His tactic flies in the face of crisis-management rationale and most legal rationale,” he said.

Blagojevich told the Tribune last year that he has turned down dozens of offers, including a contract with a minor-league baseball team and a stint on an HBO reality show about a Nevada brothel. But many of his other public appearances — he joined Donald Trump’s reality show ” Celebrity Apprentice” after a judge barred him from traveling to Costa Rica to star on “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Outta Here!” — suggest he and his team have placed financial gain above personal pride, Bernstein said.

“If the desired result is to create a market for him as an outrageous personality, than he has succeeded,” Bernstein said. “He has chosen the extreme end of outrageous.”

And so for Blagojevich, 2010 begins where 2009 ended. It was just last month his publicity team took umbrage with an unscientific “Nightline” poll proclaiming him the “Worst Behaved Newsmaker” of last year. Blagojevich beat out Bernard Madoff and Tiger Woods to snag the title — a dubious honor that prompted his publicist to issue an angry retort on New Year’s Eve.

Say what you will about the Esquire interview, but there’s no mistaking that in Blagojevich’s mind, he truly is innocent. Adam and the rest of the former governor’s legal team have said they have no problem with Blagojevich proclaiming his innocence and shouting his version of truth from the rooftop.

“They stole me away from the people of Illinois,” he told the magazine. “Now that’s the truth, OK?”


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