Burris Burrows Deeper into Disrepute

Many may react to the latest revelations about Roland Burris with shock or outrage, but the most appropriate reaction is probably sadness.

It is now apparent that the appointee from Illinois who took Barack Obama's place in the Senate was far from forthcoming in describing how he came to be picked by a governor who has since been impeached, convicted and removed from office in infamy.

Testifying under oath Jan. 8 before an impeachment panel in Springfield, Ill., Burris failed to report several contacts he had with Blagojevich's people prior to his appointment. He has tried to excuse himself by saying he was about to give a fuller answer but was interrupted. This has met with near universal derision and disbelief.

Burris has since filed an affidavit amending this testimony, and this week he has admitted he tried to raise money for the governor during the relevant period of time. In short, Burris has blown up the essential myth of himself as a citizen innocently plucked from retirement to serve the state nobly in a moment of need, a myth promoted primarily by himself.

Shocking? Outrageous? Perhaps. But surely, it is sad for all those with eyes to see. Not just for what it says about the political ethics of one individual or one state, but for what it says about the state of politics and race in America as a whole.

In Roland Burris we have a man of modest gifts who was possessed of vaunting ambition in a time of historic opportunity. Born and raised in Centralia, Ill., midway between Chicago and St. Louis, he started life as far from the power centers of his state as anyone could. What was more, he was poor, and it was no help to be growing up black in the 1940s and 1950s — especially in his part of the state.

Yet, at the start of his career, Roland Burris had the greatest gift a politician can have: good timing. He found his way into politics at the most propitious moment imaginable, in the late 1970s, when the state's Democratic machine suddenly needed African-Americans who could "sell" downstate. Burris not only fit the bill; he encountered few immediate rivals who did so as well. Subsequently, he won terms as state comptroller and state attorney general — the first statewide offices held by an African-American in Illinois — from 1978 through 1994.

However, in filling these jobs, Burris did little to distinguish himself. And when the man from Centralia reached higher — seeking the Democratic nomination for governor or senator — he was rudely rebuffed. The party pols in Chicago and Springfield backed other horses, and Burris wound up looking like a gambler who doesn't know the game has turned against him and it's time to get out.

Burris' career remained in the doldrums for more than a decade after 1994. He passed from late middle age to early retirement and beyond. The graveyard monument he had commissioned with space open for higher achievements went unfinished. The empty space appeared to be permanent.

Then came the electrifying historic moment in which Barack Obama, an outsider who came late to the mottled political history of Illinois, won the presidency. It was a great moment, especially for people of color throughout the nation and the world. And for Roland Burris, it had a special and more personal meaning. It opened the prospect of political redemption.

Although now past 70, Burris could discern a scenario for himself in the rise of Obama and the fall of Blagojevich. Facing not only impeachment but indictment in federal court, Blagojevich might well pass over all the other people in state politics with better credentials and choose someone like Burris to fill out the president-elect's unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. Blagojevich obviously needed someone black because he was replacing the only African-American in the Senate (Obama), and because he needed to maintain support in the black community himself. Perhaps the governor was even anticipating the racial composition of the jury that might hear his case in federal court in Chicago, somewhere down the line.

This was precisely the kind of opening Burris had been hoping for, a chance to close out his career in a position of national stature. In the Senate, he would be stepping into the void left by the elevation of the nation's first African-American president. It was a glory moment. Even if he wound up as little more than a footnote to historic events, Burris would at least be some small part of such events. And that looked like an opportunity worth reaching for.

And reach Mr. Burris surely did. We now know he was in contact with not just one but several surrogates for Blagojevich. The governor was arrested after being captured on tape auctioning the Obama Senate seat. He was impeached by the State Assembly, convicted by the State Senate and removed from office. But before he went, he appointed Burris to the seat.

Someday we may know all the motivations behind that decision by the departing governor. But we can assume he thought about embarrassing the Obama team and the Senate Democratic leaders. Having vowed not to seat anyone the embattled governor named, what were the Senate Democrats to do when confronted with a nominee who was black?

Initially, their response was to resist. No one knew what Burris might have done for the governor to win the nomination. But everyone could imagine the worst. Blagojevich had been dunning people for money in exchange for so many other favors, why would he give away a perfectly good Senate seat free?

To their credit, other ambitious Illinois politicians saw the quid pro quo on the wall and said no. But not Burris. He had been waiting too long with too little hope to let this moment go by. And he seems to have been sure he could grab the brass ring and hang on.

What no one can miss here is the contrast between Burris' maneuverings and the rather more inspiring rise of the man whose seat he has taken in the Senate. At precisely the moment the nation has turned to a black man in a national emergency — at home and abroad — the seat he leaves vacant has to go to someone who represents so much of what has been wrong about politics in Illinois and in the black community.

Surely, in all of this, that is the saddest element of all.

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