Sunday, January 18, 2009

Burris: Hero Plausible, or Hero Passable

In the hours following defamed Illinois Governor Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris as the junior Senator, news organizations and pundits were quick to, on one hand, condemn the appointment while, on the other, not seem like they were beating up on a “decent,” and “honorable” man. I put those words between quotation marks not because I mean them to be read ironically, but rather to underscore how often the pundits used these words. No one wanted to lash out at the appointee, but they still wanted to get their licks in on the "appointer."

A minor, somewhat mediocre circus ensued, culminating in Burris being turned away at the threshold of the Senate for not having the proper credentials – in this case, the signature of the Illinois secretary of state. Between the appointment and the shunning, the media attempted to report on Burris’s career in politics, perhaps hoping to find something of corresponding gravity to keep the Blagojevich orbit of scandal arcing through the firmament. But what came out wasn’t much. Burris is an also-ran, a has-been, a political journeyman. Wikipedia provides highlights of a resume which includes such offices as National Bank Examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for the U.S. Treasury Department; Director of the Department of Central Management Service for the State of Illinois, and Attorney General for the State of Illinois, arguably his only blue-chip office.

On the other end of the ledger are the many failed runs at higher office. Unsurprisingly, former Comptrollers seldom possess the charisma and political dynamism to win over the majority of the electorate. Suffice to say, the good people of Illinois said “no” to Burris at every turn. Subsequently, and until his recent infamous promotion, he had seen fit to stick with his consultancy and his go-to-guy work for a major law firm.

So the call to service from Governor Scumbag must have seemed like a mixed blessing. Burris, at 71, is unlikely to ever win a major state-wide or national office on his own merits. To be elevated from private citizen to a seat in arguably the most powerful legislative body in the world must be beyond seductive for a political animal like Burris. The one power which Burris has going into the process - and perhaps the one which compensates for his lack of charisma – is his knowledge of the law. The facts of the matter are thus: Blagojevich has not been impeached. He remains in power. And while in power, he has the right to exercise it. The power to appoint a vacant Senatorial seat is perfectly within his constitutional purview. Burris knew this. He also knew that he himself was clean. (Perhaps one of the perks of being a political loser.)

If he could weather the scorn and the scandal, he would be the junior Senator from Illinois. No asterisk and no footnotes. It might not be a perfect democracy, but we are a country that likes the letter of the law. We can be positively thermostatic about it. We hate to use the excuse that so-and-so won by a “technicality.” We give folks their due and move on. We even got used to the odious 2000 election results. Burris might understand this aspect of American culture. Blagojevich is essentially a hypothetical “Governor X,” someone used in a civics class to represent the person of the chief executive of a state. And in every “what-if” scenario, the Governor retains powers until removed from office. The fact that it may be a fait accompli does not diminish the fact that the constitution of the state does not have a provision for depowering an executive because he or she is suspected of illegal acts.

Through it all, Burris has acted, dare I say, senatorially? His recent occasions in front of microphone bouquets or in the frame of nightly news shows display a man who is on message, determined, and not overly excited. There is no audacity here, simply a man who has ambition, has been given a opportunity to run with it.

Chris Matthews – for whom politics is more spectator sport than tool box - has gone so far as to award Burris something called the “Hardball Award” for being “gutsy” and held him up as an example to children who should “stand up and demand” something that they want - if they believe it is theirs. I am not sure what Matthew’s point is, really. The Burris situation does not have any real parallels in the everyday world. It would be a stretch to claim that Burris had a fire in his belly for the seat. What we do know is that Blagojevich is not a capricious man; there must be something in it for him to move this particular name through the ranks. Given the governor’s shameless race-baiting – demonstrated by his “spontaneous” calling up of the Black-Panther-turned congressman Bobby Rush at his first press conference following the indictment - it is probable that the color of Burris’ skin played as much of a role in his selection as did the content of his character. Thus, in the rhetoric of the corrupted executive he equates his own tribulations with the historic victimization of blacks in America. Nice try. It’s 2009. All bets are off when you’ve got a majority of white Americans – many of whom probably still fear young black men – saying yes to a man named Obama.

Nonetheless, such is politics in our culture that being called to service in government is viewed more as a dodgy career path than a kind of benevolent draft. Politicians are corrupted by money because their jobs actually don’t pay as much as the law partnerships they had to give up. Burris, hopefully, has made enough money in his time that he can accept the position of junior Senator without regard for anything other than a desire to serve. It is important to give people a chance to rise to our highest ideals rather than to assume they will always cow to their basest instincts.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Burris is clearly a narcissist. What else can you say about a man who had “Trailblazer” etched into his massive tombstone along with highlights from his résumé? (Again with the comptrolling!) This narcissism may be a kind of defense against accusations that he is what he is, a political washout. But, again, none of this should matter. In two-years time the people of Illinois will elect a “real” Senator to represent them – presumably the same people who voted FOR Rob Blagojevich, but I digress. In the meantime, Burris will keep the seat tidy (thereby filling in some of the gray-space on his tomb wall) and do his part as an Obama-believer. He may well attempt to run or he may be blown out of the water in the primaries; incumbency under these circumstances is probably not a boon. For Burris, 2009 is simply the year when his luck and his ambition aligned. Would that we could all partake of such fortune.

But I suppose my point here is not merely about Burris’ luck. It is about his guile. There is something very American about not being kowtowed by the mansions of power, especially considering Burris’ anonymity in the national scene until December of 2008. Here was a man who, rather than saying “yes I can,” said “why the hell not?” and “try and stop me!” That he did so with a degree of civility and a lack of the crazies only adds to his ethos, and his plausibility.

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