Blagojevich on leaving for prison: ‘I can’t even think about it now ‘

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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich departs his Chicago home for Littleton, Colo., to begin his 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges Thursday, March 15, 2012. The 55-year-old Democrat becomes the second Illinois governor in a row to go to prison for corruption. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Rod Blagojevich has left his home and is heading to Colorado to begin a 14-year federal prison term for corruption.

With dozens of photographers, video cameras, and supporters all around him on his final night as a free man, Blagojevich stepped to the microphones and slung his arm around his wife.

Betraying finger-nails that appeared chewed on, Blagojevich held on to Patti through his 12-minute statement, squeezing her shoulder tightly as he bid adieu to Illinois and talked about “a dark and hard journey” that would take him thousands of miles from his family.

“How do you make sense of all this? What do you tell your children when calamity strikes and hardship comes? What do you do when disaster hits your family, and you leave behind your children and your wife?” Blagojevich asked the night before he was to report to prison. “Tomorrow, saying goodbye to Patti and my kids will be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve been putting off the thought about what that’s going to be like. I can’t even think about it now.”

It was another surreal moment in the Blagojevich saga, with the former governor delivering a statement on live television before a swarm of reporters and photographers and an odd mix of well-wishers and political groupies.

The strange chapter in Chicago political history ended with Blagojveich acting more like a preening rock star than a disgraced politician heading off to prison.

Patti, dressed simply in a purple shirt and blue jeans, broke down and passed her hand over her eyes to wipe away tears that she could no longer blink back as her husband thanked her for standing with him through his political and legal odyssey.

“It has been, walking through life with Patti, a most gracious journey,” Blagojevich said.

“And you know when she took her vow when we were married and she said through good times and bad, neither one of us could ever have imagined it would be like this. And here’s been Patti, standing strong, and standing tall.”

Blagojevich’s live-on-TV address Wednesday evening from his front lawn, could be his last public statement in perhaps more than a decade as he’s due to begin his 14-year prison term Thursday at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, a low-security federal prison in Denver’s southwest suburbs, near Littleton, Colo.

It capped a tumultuous few years for Blagojevich, who was twice elected governor, then arrested, impeached, ousted from his political position, then convicted at trial.

Blagojevich is expected to enter a substance abuse program that will help shave time off his sentence.

Even with time off, Blagojevich, 55, faces the prospect of not regaining his freedom until he’s in his mid-60s.

Blagojevich stood in front of the same Ravenswood Manor home as he did so often throughout the years since his Dec. 9, 2008 arrest.

It was inside that home that FBI agents recorded the then-governor attempting to sell President Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. On the tapes, Blagojevich famously described his power to appoint to the seat as “f—— golden.” After two trials, one that ended with a hung jury on all but one count, Blagojevich stood convicted of 18 counts, from lying to the FBI to trying to sell the Senate seat.

For Blagojevich’s last meal at home Wednesday night, Patti cooked a spaghetti dinner, using Blagojevich’s late mother’s recipe. “I’m going to eat so much spaghetti I won’t need breakfast,” he said after his statement.

In his address, he spoke of how it pained him to not be around to help his wife raise their two girls, Amy and Annie.

For his youngest, Annie, Blagojevich left as a memento two dolls that have the capability to play back recorded messages. According to someone close to the family, one of the dolls has Blagojevich’s voice saying: “Hi Annie, Daddy loves you.”

Blagojevich heads to O’Hare International Airport Thursday morning and will fly to Colorado with two of his lawyers – Aaron Goldstein and Shelly Sorosky. Blagojevich’s family will not fly with him.

During his statement, Blagojevich, who wore a dark sport-coat over an open-collared shirt, recalled some of his accomplishments in office. He singled out the All-Kids insurance program and free mass-transit rides for senior citizens.

“I got bruised and battered and bloodied, but we were able to get those done,” he said. “And I never raised the income tax.”

But he also addressed his failings.

“You can never have enough humility, and maybe I could have had more of that,” he said.

Blagojevich spoke of his words on tape as “political talk,” and “horse-trading,” a characterization that prosecutors repeatedly took issue with.

“I believed I was on the right side of the law,” he said, but he added, “The decision went against me.”

Blagojevich said he is drawing strength from the prospect of a successful appeal.

“We are appealing the case. … This is not over.”

He’s also drawing strength from reading the Bible, which he hopes will help him not be bitter over his plight, he said.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “I’m far from getting past all that, and that’s the demons you might be haunted by.

“Through suffering comes wisdom,” he said. “It strengthens your faith to never give in and never give up.”

The crush of the crowd could be felt as Blagojevich and Patti first emerged from their home, people began trampling each other, stepping on each other’s feet, losing their balance.

A man pushed and shoved his way closer to Blagojevich and draped a flag over him and Patti. The couple looked confused and someone pulled it off of them.

Patti did not speak except to tell the crowd: “I hope you all go away tomorrow.”

At the end of his remarks, Blagojevich spent more than 20 minutes working the crowd. Smiling wide, the ex-governor appeared to revel in his mini-celebrity status.

He began signing autographs, signing posters, papers, an M&M’s wrapper, a Girl Scout cookie box, T-shirts, hats. He sometimes crouched through the iron bars of his balcony to reach people. One person asked him to sign a CTA card.

He sometimes spoke in Spanish. “Si se puede!” he shouted.

As he closed out his interaction with the crowd, he stretched hard over his balcony, balancing on the tops of his thighs, his feet in the air, as he reached out to people below to touch their hands.

Before and during his second trial, Blagojevich repeatedly professed his innocence, demanded that prosecutors play all the tapes against him and even took the witness stand in his own defense.

None of it helped.

In December, U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years in prison for his crimes – one of the lengthiest terms in Illinois history for government corruption. The judge said the ex-governor’s conduct tore “at the very fabric” of government.

On Wednesday, Goldstein, a Blagojevich lawyer, said he believed Blagojevich was mentally prepared for prison.

“He has a unique ability to handle this, I think, because of his optimism and he has faith in the appeal,” Goldstein said.

Sorosky told reporters that the defense team still believes there are strong grounds for an appeal and that they are pursuing one, though it’s still in the “early, embryonic stages.”

Blagojevich himself spoke against the backdrop of a true media circus. Helicopters hovered over his Ravenswood Manor home on Chicago’s Northwest Side for more than an hour before he gave his statement. Giant TV antennae protruded above treetops on side streets. Chicago police squad cars circled the neighborhood.

A crowd of supporters looked on.

A banner hanging from the railing of the Blagojevich home read: “Thanks, Mr. Governor. We will pray.”

Another cardboard sign taped to the railing read: “Good luck, Mr. Rod. Your a good man and we know you got cheated. Never give up and keep the faith.”

Blagojevich timed his going-away statement to start at 5:02 p.m. – to be aired live at the start of evening newscasts.

Earlier in the day, reporters and photographers converged on the former governor as he returned from an outing with his younger daughter, Annie.

“Ask questions later!” Annie, holding a pink bag that said “Sweet and Sassy” on it, shouted to the crowd that closed in on them.

“That’s it, excellent job!” Blagojevich told her as they walked inside: “That’s my girl.”

Cindy Hicks, 53, who said she lives in the neighborhood, said she thinks Blagojevich will face a tough psychological challenge of being locked up, but she added, “He’s charming enough that I’m sure he’ll make friends in there.”

Gloria Leverence, 70, a Lake View resident who was there to hear the former governor speak, said she came to see “history.” She said she asked her grandchildren to come, but they told her she was crazy. Leverence also said she felt like the ex-governor needed her support.

“I have three grandchildren who have free health care because of him,” Leverence said. “I liked riding the bus for free for all these years. … I don’t think he deserved what he got . . . He didn’t kill anyone.”

“If he was found guilty, he was probably guilty,” said Elizabeth Sage, 31, who was out for a stroll with her 9-month old son, Conway, and stopped to watch. “I’m glad to see an end to the circus, but as soon as he’s gone, another circus will start – but hopefully just not around here.”

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