SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • In the end, Rod Blagojevich's final public statement as a free man wasn't about his self-proclaimed compassion for the citizenry, or his pride in his six years as governor, or even his continuing claim that he never broke the law. It was about his resilience.
"This is not over," Blagojevich told hundreds of supporters outside his Chicago home early Wednesday evening as he prepared to travel to Colorado to begin a 14-year federal prison sentence today.
As the crowd chanted, "Free our governor!" Blagojevich answered, "I'll see you around."
Thus ended a short televised news conference and a long fall from power that some think will haunt Illinois for years.
"Illinois will still be suffering from the abuses and excesses of him and his administration on the day he leaves prison," predicted Mike Lawrence, a former aide to ex-Gov. Jim Edgar. He was one of many Illinois pols who weren't likely to be swayed by anything in Blagojevich's seemingly heartfelt goodbye to his state Wednesday.
"Every time he appears on television, it further erodes the public's trust in government," Lawrence said before the event.
Sticking to a position he has fervently held for three years, Blagojevich told the crowd that he still believes he never intentionally violated the law as governor.
"The political talk about how to raise campaign funds, the things that we believed were political horse trades, and legal — I take responsibility for saying those things," Blagojevich said as his wife, Patti Blagojevich, stood nearby.
"Everything I talked about doing ... I believed was on the right side of the law," he said. "The decision went against me. ... I accept that decision, as hard as it is. ... I have to go do what I have to go do. And this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
He reminded the crowd that he is appealing his conviction. "The truth ultimately will prevail," he said.
Blagojevich, 55, was convicted on 18 counts, including trying to auction off President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. The progressive Chicago Democrat who promoted himself as a champion of the weak also attempted to extort a political contribution from a children's hospital by threatening its state funding, the federal jury found.
Blagojevich spoke Wednesday without notes and appeared in good spirits. His wife appeared near tears at one point as he talked about the work ahead for her and their two daughters and kissed her on the head.
His comments at times resembled a campaign stump speech as he recounted his success in securing health care for poor children and women. He even reminded the crowd of the importance of early detection of cervical cancer.
He repeatedly referred to his conviction in terms normally used for natural events or unavoidable hardships — "calamity" and "adversity" — and he mostly talked around the word "prison."
"I have a hard time even saying where I have to go. It's hard for me to say that I have to go to prison," Blagojevich said. "That's a hard word for me to say."
Under standard federal guidelines that require completion of at least 85 percent of prison sentences before parole, Blagojevich will serve at least 11½ years behind bars.
At the Federal Correctional Institution at Englewood, Blagojevich will have to wear a khaki uniform and boots, and will sleep either in a two-man room or large dormitory, according to a summary about the prison that the Denver Post, published in December in anticipation of Blagojevich's arrival. He will work for less than 40 cents an hour at positions like clerk, food server or landscaper.
The good news: He will be able to keep his famous coiffure. The facility's prisoner handbook specifies that inmates are allowed to keep their preferred haircut, according to the newspaper.
Blagojevich is the second consecutive Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6½-year federal prison term for corruption that included steering state business to friends in exchange for money and gifts.
"I think George Ryan ... knew government had to do certain things, and his approach was to figure out how his friends could make money as government did what it had to do," said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political reform. "Blagojevich just sold government to the highest bidder."
It's a common refrain from reformers and political experts in Illinois: that Blagojevich's tenure was a shocking low in governmental honesty and competence, even by Illinois' famously low standards.
"He was the most corrupt governor in my time watching, and he was also the most incompetent," said Charles N. Wheeler III, who covered Illinois government as a journalist starting in the 1960s and now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "George Ryan is in jail for the equivalent of jimmying a vending machine. Blagojevich is going away for (the equivalent of) armed robbery."
Blagojevich was convicted largely on the basis of FBI wiretaps that show him conspiring with others to garner political contributions and influence in exchange for official action as governor. When Obama vacated his Senate seat for the presidency, Blagojevich was caught on tape calling his power to appoint a replacement an "(expletive) golden" opportunity to personally benefit through campaign contributions or other gains.
Blagojevich was arrested midway through his second term and subsequently impeached. Before and during his two trials, he kept himself in the national limelight with television appearances, including Donald Trump's "Apprentice," as well as a book in which he proclaimed his innocence.