Video: The Rod Blagojevich-Jon Stewart Interview. Truly Haunting TV

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It’s not every day that a disgraced former governor who’s been convicted of lying to the FBI goes on primetime television to chat about the trial. So I tuned in to Monday evening’s The Daily Show for a little good old-fashioned Schadenfreude, as Rod Blagojevich sat down across Jon Stewart to be pummeled and ridiculed. Halfway through the proceedings, Jon Stewart teed up our collective sentiments perfectly: “I’m serious,” Stewart said over the hooting of an audience out for blood. “You’re a guy that is the most adamant about his innocence as anyone I’ve ever met. So you’re either the victim of a terrible persecution or a sociopath.”

Most Americans would probably run with the latter sentiment. As a nation, we’ve dismissed the guy as a hack and a scoundrel – and a publicity shill who, yes, even after being convicted in a court of law would still accept an invitation to a TV show. He could never be accused of projecting an aura of shame. But something about Blagojevich’s demeanor last night (clips below) was arresting. Far from escapist lambasting, this was confounding, hypnotic television, a glimpse of an angry, unapologetic man who – despite all that’s transpired – cannot be easily dismissed. As the crowd erupted at the sound of the word “sociopath,” Stewart challenged the governor that if he is so innocent, why didn’t he take the stand at his own trial? Through the joke and the jab, Blagojevich didn’t move a muscle.

If there was another trial, he said, yes, he would most likely take the stand, but if the government again failed to prove its case then why should he? “They didn’t prove corruption!” Blago yelled back in the exchange. “They lied.”

In the era of the sound bite, where 10 seconds is usually more than enough to pronounce absolute judgment against someone, the uninterrupted Blagojevich interview – posted in full at the Daily Show’s web site – is refreshing for its breadth. In the weeks since the Shirley Sherrod rush to judgment, I have decided to listen a little longer to demonized public officials – to give them a fair hearing. And last night, I found myself listening to Blagojevich, questioning for the first time whether he was the one I had problems with, or the system in which he worked – where cronyism and political favors are standard operating procedure. “Before I could catch my breath, everyone thought I was a scumbag,” Blagojevich says, thinking back to the way in which federal prosecutors publicly pronounced the charges. Then later he defended what he said on the now-infamous FBI recordings: “The governor has the power to make himself a senator if he wants. If this was about a job for me I could have done it the moment Obama resigned the seat legally.”

It was during that last quote where you could almost hear the audience fade from cackles to silence, realizing that his answer was absolutely correct – that maybe it’s really not Blagojevich that we have a problem with. Is he the first politician who has spoken with such vulgarity? Hardly (check out the stories of LBJ in the bathroom). Is he the first politician who’s tried to get rich through his political posturing? Just check out the median wealth of the members of today’s Congress.

No, Monday night’s Daily Show appearance was gripping TV because, if you listen to him long enough, Blagojevich starts to become a hard guy to hate. Yes, he’s been convicted on a charge that could bring five years, he’s been dragged through the mud by every possible political pundit; I fully admit that this guy is not a model public servant. But during my commute this morning, I couldn’t get over this question: Why did he agree to go on a TV show so soon after a trial? I think Stewart is right: He’s either certifiable, and showing off, or absolutely convinced that he’s getting a bum rap for doing something that a whole lot of his contemporaries do with impunity. And there’s something haunting about the intensity with which he makes his case – that he was behaving as any politician would, that he has not yet been convicted for any of the stuff that the world hates him for.

If we truly are a nation of innocent until proven guilty, this is probably our greatest test right here: Rod Blagojevich, in living color.

I’m not apologizing or defending the guy. All the tapes and transcripts seem to speak more loudly than his most urgent pleas for innocence. I’m far more impressed with the quality and scrutiny of the interview – with Stewart’s willingness to put forward the tough questions, and with Blago’s raw and unfiltered answers. Here’s a man who, for better or worse, seems to be operating outside the realm of handlers or PR advisors. He clearly believes that he’s done nothing more lurid than what is legally allowed of leaders in his position. And from where I sit, what’s even scarier than that revelation is Blagojevich’s claim that the government made such a weak case he didn’t feel the need to take a stand.

Blago may well be full of it. But last night, he made a few decent points. And that’s why the interview was so riveting and evocative. Forget all the primetime cable news talking heads; these long-form, unfiltered Daily Show videos with the world’s top thinkers are quickly becoming the most riveting interviews of the day.

The full, unedited interview – part 1:

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And part 2:

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