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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted February 21, 2009 | 08:03 PM (EST)

Secretary of Commerce Roland W. Burris


It's clear as I write this on Saturday afternoon that the junior Senator from Illinois, Roland Burris, isn't going anywhere. Like Rod Blagojevich, the man who appointed him, Burris has no shame.

What he does have is an unwavering eye on the words and numbers he desperately wants atop his resume/tombstone: U.S. Senator from Illinois, 2009-2017 or even 2023. Yikes!

Burris has to be stopped and President Obama can stop him. Here's how.

Appoint him Secretary of Commerce.

The position is open, leaving an embarrassing hole in the President 's Cabinet, because his first two choices, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, withdrew before they could be confirmed.

Mine is a neat solution and a face-saving bonanza for Burris.

He gets to have a confirmation hearing--just imagine, Roland Jr., Rolanda, Mrs. Roland Burris seated behind him beaming with pride. He will likely be confirmed by the Senate, given the emasculated state of the Republican Party and given that all Democrats will be fully briefed about Obama's Solomon-like plan to launch the pesky, embarrassing Burris from the senate. And senators, no matter which party, will be so relieved to have Burris out of their club. They won't have to deal with an ethics investigation that might raise questions about why other members of the club were never publicly admonished (think, for example, Ted Stevens, David Vitter and Chris Dodd).

Secretary Burris would get to be one of 15 instead of one of 100. He'd enjoy a huge wood-paneled office; the Commerce Secretary's office is said to be the second biggest among cabinet offices. He'd get to appoint an entourage of deputies and spokesmen, and preside over a sprawling department with some 45,000 employees. He'll be the top guy; no "junior" in his title, a designation that doesn't fit his 71 years. He'd get to sit around that mahogany cabinet table in the famous room next to the Oval Office with Timothy F. Geithner, Robert M. Gates, Eric H. Holder, Jr., and Arne Duncan.

So long as he keeps the job--and that's an important "so long" (see below)--he'd get to go to state dinners and sit next to celebrities, movie stars even. When in 2004 I interviewed Bill Daley, Commerce Secretary in the second Clinton administration, Daley told me that he once sat next to Steven Spielberg's wife, Kate Capshaw. Burris would, at least for a short time, get to travel the world, perhaps even with the President. "Almost every trip [Clinton] took internationally," Daley said, "the Commerce Secretary goes. ... If we were meeting with Yeltsin, if we were meeting with Blair ... some trade, economic issue would always be on the table, so you'd have to be there for those things."

Best of all, Burris wouldn't have to run for election in 2010. Plenty of U.S. senators with distinguished tenures--think Hillary Clinton or William Cohen or Lloyd Bentsen--gave up the senate to serve their presidents, so Burris would be in esteemed company. Many politicians consider a cabinet post to be the capstone on a career, and we know how much capstones count for Roland Burris. U.S. Senator from Illinois on one engraved line; Secretary of Commerce on another! Wow!

Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, certainly speaks for the President and while not quite ordering Burris to resign, he did suggest on Friday that Burris spend this weekend thinking about his future. Our new governor, Pat Quinn, told Burris it's time to go; our state comptroller, our state treasurer, members of the congressional delegation, members of the Illinois General Assembly did likewise. Our state's senior senator, Dick Durbin, called the Burris spectacle "sickening" and part of the "Blagojevich burlesque." Not exactly a seal of approval.

In vowing to keep his senate seat Burris says he welcomes all investigations. Of course he does. He's smart enough to recognize that months will pass before there's any resolution and perjury is extremely hard to prove. The investigations will start and stall, the investigators will squabble, headline writers will turn to other people in trouble, the economy will remain frightful and on center stage; everyone will forget about Roland Burris. What was it he did? He changed his story five times? So what? More important things to worry about.

By ignoring the ridicule heaped upon him after Blagojevich appointed him to Obama's seat, Burris was seated in the senate, and he obviously plans to repeat that stonewall--unless Obama adopts the slam dunk of the Commerce appointment solution. It's not like he's naming Burris to head Treasury or HHS (another vacant position). No one seems to know exactly what the Commerce Secretary does, anyway. There are calls to break up Commerce or abolish it--one call to abolish it came a decade ago from Judd Gregg, Obama's second failed pick for for the post. Unlike Gregg, Burris would not complain if team Obama transferred the real responsibility for the Census Bureau to the White House. Obama can safely bet that Senator "Trail Blazer" is interested in the title, the pomp and circumstance, not the actual work.

The key to this plan that I'm proposing to Obama is that cabinet secretaries serve at the President's pleasure. Obama could name Burris, let him serve just long enough to justify that tombstone engraving, and then announce that Secretary Roland Burris wants to spend more time with Roland, Jr., with Rolanda, with Mrs. Roland Burris. (Does the junior senator have grandchildren, and what are their names?)

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is just about the only high public official who has urged Burris to stay put. Stroger is, perhaps, a model for Burris because Stroger stayed in the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt would say, even when he was subject to relentless ridicule about being so obviously unfit to head the County Board, and such a blatant example of the worst kind of nepotism. In gratitude for Stroger's support when Burris needed it most, perhaps Burris could name Stroger to be a subhead at one of the many divisions of Commerce--the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Patent and Trademark Office. At least Stroger would no longer have his hands on our County budget.

On paper, Roland Burris has the credentials to be Commerce Secretary: accountant, banker, lawyer, comptroller, attorney general, U.S. Senator, oh, and, don't forget, registered lobbyist.
So it's fitting to put Burris at Commerce. When I was writing about Daley, one political strategist described the Commerce Secretary as, in essence, a deal maker. Burris apparently tried to make a deal to get that senate seat. Perhaps he could try to make a few more deals on the public's behalf at Commerce before Obama announces that the Honorable Mr. Burris will be heading home to spend more time with his family.