Of Fools and Democrats
With his lies, Roland Burris has sunk what could have been a respectable, if unimpressive, turn in the Senate.
Roland Burris sailed into Barack Obama’s Senate seat as a harmless pawn of Blago’s cynical scheming. Oops. Now Rolo’s lies have given Democrats a reason to sideline him.
There is an old saying, or there should be, that God looks after fools and Democrats. Look at Roland Burris, the political has-been and perennial loser who got one of the all-time greatest second chances in American politics and blew it by lying under oath to a state impeachment panel. Still, Burris is a U.S. senator and is likely to stay that way until early 2011. That, more than anything, is what he wanted.
Burris, who now sits in the same U.S. Senate seat once occupied by giants such as Adlai Stevenson, Everett Dirksen and, of course, the man he replaced, Barack Obama, likes to credit the successes in his career to divine intervention. And at this stage, it’s hard to argue.
Having survived one of the nastiest political firestorms in recent memory—the Gov. Rod Blagojevich train wreck—Burris went on to become, improbably, the 47th person to serve Illinois in the U.S. Senate, and now with one little lie, he’s destroyed what little credibility he may have had left.
In a scandal focused on allegations of influence peddling—that Blagojevich tried to sell the Senate seat in exchange for campaign contributions—Burris forgot to tell investigators that the governor’s brother had, more than once, asked him for campaign contributions.
The problem for Burris is that he told a state impeachment panel that he had no such conversation with the governor or any of his surrogates. Now there is talk of perjury charges and removal. And even if that is an unlikely outcome, fending off those charges is not how a senator wants to spend his days. Setting aside the crass, racial politics Blagojevich used to get Burris into the Senate, the best argument for his appointment was that he did not share the taint of the man who appointed him. Burris was seen as politically opportunistic, but in the end, a harmless figure who would dutifully fill out Barack Obama’s term, vote as he was counseled, then return to the quiet of his private life.
He foiled expectations early, by announcing that he intended to run for a full term. His announcement complicated the calculus for the Democrats, who did not think he could win but still feared opposing the only black member in the Senate.
Now, having lied, Burris is fair game. Last week, he filed an affidavit amending his testimony to the state impeachment committee, revealing interesting contact with the governor’s brother. Besieged by allegations that he lied, he met with reporters on Monday:
“The governor’s brother on a routine fundraising call indicated, ‘I am now the new fundraiser for the governor, and Roland you’ve been helpful for us in the past,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you know, I’ve certainly tried to work with the governor. I’ve tried to help you all. A lot of people didn’t.'"
But those conversations also involved Burris making a pitch for the Senate seat.
“Oh, by the way, in that first conversation with him (Rob in October), so that part is where I raise a question about the Senate seat with him. But no other time do we talk about the Senate seat. So then we came back, and when he called me back the third time, because I went to talk to my partner, and we then assessed the situation and said, ‘Look, you know, I’m interested in the Senate seat. I can’t raise any money for him.’”
How do you forget conversations like these? Burris may spend the next year and a half explaining that, making it hard to legislate.
The irony, of course, is that Burris’ troubles may be a gift to Senate Democrats. This episode almost ensures that Burris will not be able to launch an effective primary bid. Democratic money will dry up for the incumbent and the Democratic leadership in Springfield and in Washington will not have to worry about how it looks politically if they don’t get behind the one African American in the Senate. He did it to himself.
I had Burris pegged as a harmless Alice-in-Wonderland dilettante, taken on a wild journey not of his own making. And in the end, I originally argued, the story was less about him than it was about Blagojevich’s cynicism and the Senate Democrats’ low threshold for race politics. Now, the story is all about Burris, and there is no escaping the fact that there is nothing harmless about having one of the most egomaniacal, narcissistic people in politics represent you in the Senate.
Still, it looks like both Senator Burris and the Senate Democrats will have gotten what they want.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.