LIFE AFTER THE SENATE

02.16.13

Roland Burris: Ex-Senator Who Briefly Filled Obama Seat Still Nursing Wounds

Appointed by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he served less than two years in the Senate seat Obama vacated. Now, Roland Burris works as a lawyer and is shopping a book about his journey—and is still angry at a media he says was grossly unfair.

When Roland Burris is reached by phone at his Chicago law office earlier this week, he is proofreading copies of his memoir. He gives the working title—“What is your reaction to that? Does it grab you?”—but asks that it not be printed, since he hasn’t copywritten it. His agent is still shopping the book around, and Burris is hoping for some kind of advance.

The thrust of the memoir is his journey from Centralia, Illinois, to his controversial appointment by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama—the seat no one wanted after Blagojevich was caught by federal agents trying to sell it to the highest bidder.

Burris, an understated and often overlooked Illinois pol, had been lobbying for the seat hard after Obama was elected president and preparing to give it up, but when Burris accepted the governor’s appointment, he became a national laughingstock, mocked for everything from the mausoleum he had built for himself for after his death to the names of his children (Roland II and Rolanda), even his penchant for referring to himself in the third person. The Senate initially refused to seat him, and federal investigators looked into whether he had tried to buy off Blagojevich.

And so the last part of Burris’s memoir is devoted to clearing his name in the whole sordid affair and settling a few scores with those he blames most for his predicament—mainly, as he says, “your colleagues in the media.”

The memoir describes his “mentality in terms of my having the audacity to take the appointment and then the media in their minds treated it as heresy and attacked me as if I had committed some kind of crime. You know: ‘Burris lied to get seated, Burris changed his story, Burris tried to raise funds for the governor.’ Those are the headlines in the Sun-Times and the Tribune.”

Repeatedly in two 30-minute phone conversations, Burris quotes the names, dates, authors, and headlines of stories he found to be unfair from his time in Washington. And, he notes, even though he was exonerated in Blagojevich’s scheme, one would be hard-pressed to find any stories about that.

“It has become the norm in this media mentality, and it is ruining people’s lives. Under our judicial system, you are innocent until proven guilty. Yet you are guilty until proven innocent in the press, and then when you are innocent, there is no reporting. So where do you go to get your reputation back? Is there as much ink about how ‘Burris Hasn’t Done Anything Wrong’ as there was when ‘Burris Changed His Story,’ ‘Burris Tried to Raise Funds for the Governor’?

In the years since he left the Senate, Burris has mostly kept a low profile, running his law practice and occasionally appearing at political events in Chicago’s black community. He recently started teaching a class called the Roland Burris School of Politics, in which he teaches aspiring pols how to win elections and how the American political system works. The class meets in the evenings for three days at a time, and costs 50 bucks a session. A Chicago Tribune columnist sent an undercover reporter to attend and wrote a mocking write-up, which Burris quoted freely, presumably from memory, on the phone.

He isn’t as toxic in Illinois as he is elsewhere. Back home, he is still remembered as the first statewide black elected official, and in a state where four of the last seven governors have gone to prison, accepting a tainted Senate appointment is a relatively minor infraction.

“This is Chicago, and this is Illinois,” said political consultant Thom Serafin. “This kind of thing goes on here all the time.”

And so the former attorney general continues what he, with characteristic grandiosity, calls “my crusade”—holding a runaway news media to account. 

“The media has to change its ways. Even when I was in the Senate, I went after The New York Times, others. I said, ‘Who polices you?’ They said, ‘Well, we police ourselves.’ And what do I have to fight back with?

“It’s all ‘gotcha!’ It’s about trying to sell newspapers, and make news and they are ruining people’s lives with this instant reporting of information.”

“They don’t do any background work anymore. It’s all ‘gotcha!’ It’s about trying to sell newspapers, and make news, and they are ruining people’s lives with this instant reporting of information. And you’ve got all these blogs and other social media, and you can say anything about anybody, and the professional media take that and use that. I mean, this has gotten out of hand. And the only profession that is not checked is you all. Every profession has to have a clearance where you go before a board. Lawyers can get sued for malpractice. Doctors! There is nothing in the media under this First Amendment issue called freedom of the press that has just been abused by individuals, because they try to create news rather than reporting news and try to outdo the other in competition to try to stay alive and sell themselves. And there has never been a major story about how Roland Burris hasn’t done anything.”

Burris has warm words for a few of the people he served with in the Senate during his less-than-two-year appointment. Orrin Hatch had a good sense of humor, and Harry Reid “took care of me,” even though the Senate majority leader once called the appointment “unacceptable.”

Burris recalls that there were a few Democrats who called on him to resign when it was revealed that he too was caught on wiretaps talking to the governor’s brother about getting the appointment. He was saved, he said, “by some of my black colleagues who had to jump on all of those white Democrats who called for my resignation. The black Democrats had to call and say back off—Burris hasn’t done anything.”

He still has at his home the two golden gavels he received for spending more than 200 hours presiding over the Senate, a yeoman’s job given to freshman lawmakers, and the Senate chair that his staff bought him as a gift. He still has warm thoughts toward Blagojevich, whom he acknowledges would never have appointed Burris to the seat if he weren’t going to jail.

“The governor just talked too much. That was his problem. He was not very professional in the way he communicated.”

There were some drawbacks to being one of the 100 most powerful people in the country, Burris acknowledged. The commute, for one (not like in Illinois, he noted, when he got to fly to Springfield on state aircraft) and the fact that “there was no per diem. Financially, it was not very rewarding for me at all. You are on your own for expenses. And getting out of O’Hare on commercial airlines.”

Still, he adds, “if there is another vacancy, I would love to go there for a short time again. If something happens to one of our senators, and the governor wants to appoint me, I would love to go back.”