The rough justice of American politics: Senator Roland Burris exits, anonymity beckons


Roland Burris, please meet Ralph Tyler Smith.


While waiting for a prosecutor friend in the Everett Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago Friday, I noticed the small dedication plaque in the lobby. It indicated that the Mies van der Rohe-designed structure was actually rededicated in 1970 to honor the legendary U.S. Senator from Illinois after his death the year before. The only other person mentioned is U.S. Sen. Ralph T. Smith, who was in attendance that day.


I googled to find out that Smith was an Illinois Republican legislator who was appointed to fill Dirksen's seat and served all of 14 months before losing a special election. So perhaps the rededication was one of the highlights of his Senate career. I did not know his name.


An hour or so later, my friends at MSNBC called to ask if I could shortly opine on Burris' imminent public announcement that he would not seek a full six-year term after his controversial appointment by then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill President Obama's Senate seat. My prosecutor chum and I were nearly finished with our Chinese dim sum, so I said sure.


I can be a bit of a problem for TV producers since I occasionally blab a bit too long. Friday there was no such threat. In picking the brain of my luncheon companion, as well as a political reporter chum, it was clear that the Burris decision was simple: No money, no credibility, no White House support. Brevity was my lone alternative.


It was thus a bit ironic to hear Burris then opine about the duress of fundraising, and how he would have to choose between doing the people's business in the Senate and raising significant sums just to run for election.


"Political races have become far too expensive in this country," Burris declared. He then added, "In making this decision I was called to choose between spending my time raising funds or spending my time raising issues for my state."


Please, Roland, don't assume we're all that naive.


Ultimately, his problem was not an unfair burden to raise many millions of dollars for a full-fledged primary and general election campaign next year. His problem was that he couldn't raise more than a few dimes, given the inept handling of his selection and his subsequent tall tales about his dealings with Blagojevich. He beat a perjury investigation, yes, but he still left the distinct impression that he'd been lying about that relationship.


So there'll probably be a wide-open Senate race for Obama's seat and, for sure, money will be important. Indeed, one can almost hear the sounds of the 32-year-old state treasurer, the irrepressibly ambitious and seemingly impatient Alexi Giannoulias, telling one and all, especially reporters, about his mounting war chest and all his supposed support from the White House. His track record, mostly in the family banking business, was thin and he was largely elected because of exploiting his ties to Obama (they were basketball-playing chums back in Chicago). But things are a long way off and he could win, maybe even serve "the people" well.


The White House preference had apparently been the state treasurer, Lisa Madigan, but she opted out last week, apparently in part due to a laudable skepticism about real estate prices, private school tuitions and just living in Washington. It's likely that she would have squashed Burris and Giannloulias like bugs in a Democratic primary, then done same with any Republican opponent.


As for Burris, he'll be able to spend his post-political years (he's actually not won an election since 1990) by being called "Senator," which his healthy ego will love. And he'll probably make sure that the moniker is engraved on the mausoleum he's already built for himself in Chicago's Oak Woods Cemetery.


If he's lucky, maybe we'll remember him a bit longer than Ralph T. Smith. If not, so be it. There's a rough justice for political losers.


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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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