S. Eudora Smith
As Sen. Roland Burris’ listening tour apparently deteriorates into a dismissing tour, perhaps black voters will finally abandon the politics of symbolism that Burris has eagerly manipulated.
Not long ago, Rod Blagojevich, then the governor of Illinois, cynically chose the aging egotist to fill the seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Longing for a place in national history, Burris, who had already earned mention in state history, greedily grabbed for the new honor—even though his acceptance of the governor’s offer allowed the mentally challenged Blago to cloud the corruption allegations against him with an appeal to racial symbolism. The issue quickly became keeping an African-American as an Illinois senator, not the governor’s sleazy comments and alleged efforts to sell the seat, which were captured on a federal wiretap.
Burris’ desire for a higher political perch was abetted by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, who used the word lynching to describe the elder’s initial encounters with a dismissive U.S. Senate leadership. Adding to the theater, a posse of black preachers anointed Burris as he prepared in January for his trip to Washington to claim his seat. Clutching his appointment letter from Blagojevich, a befuddled-looking Burris ambled about the halls of power seeking an audience, before holding a news conference in the rain, looking frail and earnest.
Weeks later, he is still looking befuddled, but not earnest, as he stumbles under questioning about the veracity of his statements to the Illinois committee that impeached Blagojevich. It may seem a small thing to chastise Burris for failing to say he had discussions with the former governor’s brother about raising funds for Blagojevich. But it was just such an issue of ethics—alleged “pay to play” for the Senate seat—that resulted in Blagojevich’s undoing. Burris’ decision to sidestep full disclosure points to only one conclusion: He didn’t want anything to get in the way of his becoming a U.S. senator.
Now, we are back to where we started weeks ago, asking the same question that was asked when Blagojevich appointed Burris: Is it ethical for a governor under suspicion of trying to sell a Senate seat to appoint someone to that position? Burris has answered the question conclusively.
And his participation in this protracted farce in which he has become the last cast member (the former governor and supporting actors have departed the stage) has been propelled by racial symbolism. Blagojevich tried to use it to detract from his troubles; Burris carried the baton to promote his own ambitions. It’s an old game of switching substance for symbols. Yet, once again, some of us black Americans fell hard for this political Ponzi scheme.
S. Eudora Smith is a writer and teacher who lives in Chicago.
AP photo / J. Scott Applewhite
Burris has acknowledged that, before his appointment to the U.S. Senate, he was asked to raise money for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and tried, unsuccessfully, to do so.