THE BLOG
02/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Burris, Race, Religion, And The Senate

"I am now the junior senator from the state of Illinois. . . . Friends, we're going to have to have some powerful prayer. . . . They can't deny what the Lord has ordained."

--Roland Burris, yesterday, speaking from a church pulpit.

 

The growing intensity of the rhetoric surrounding Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, and Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat reached new heights (or depths, depending on your point of view) this weekend, by both Burris and his supporters. This is getting so completely out of hand that some perspective is sorely needed here.

For those of you emerging from a coma (or, perhaps, a Guinness-record-setting holiday hangover), the story so far: Illinois Governor Rod "[expletive deleted]" Blagojevich, after unsuccessfully peddling Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder, pulled off what can only be described as a masterstroke of politics. He did so (successfully diverting the media's attention from his own legal problems) by appointing former state Attorney General Roland Burris to Obama's Senate seat. Burris is a black man, and would (if he serves) be the only current African-American in the Senate. But wait! Senate Democrats don't want to seat him, because they see his appointment as tainted -- by the mere fact that Blagojevich made it. Which could lead to a showdown, where Burris attempts entry to the Senate floor and the Sergeant-at-Arms refuses to let him in.

While it is no doubt fun to speculate over such a dramatic event, it probably won't happen this way. Some sort of deal will likely be soon worked out so that Burris is accepted with the standing of "Senator-elect." Burris would get floor privileges because of this designation -- but would not get to speak, vote, or even hire staff, until the question of his credentials was settled. Meaning (much to the disappointment of the news media) no showdown at the Senate doors.

Leading this compromise is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Reid strongly came out against seating Burris at first, but then (to absolutely no one's surprise) immediately backed down from his strong stance. This comes as no surprise because this is what Reid does best -- back down and capitulate (see: the past two years).

But putting aside the question of whether Burris should be seated, and what will happen to Blagojevich, the rhetoric being used by both Burris and his supporters needs to be addressed. Because it's getting completely out of control.

First, Burris' own words, as reported by a Chicago Sun-Times article:

"I am now the junior senator from the state of Illinois," he said from the pulpit of a South Side church on what he said was the eve of his trip to Washington.

. . .

"Friends, we're going to have to have some powerful prayer. . . . They can't deny what the Lord has ordained,'' said Burris at New Covenant Baptist Church, 740 E. 77th, surrounded by ministers, politicians and activists.

Today, he was quoted as saying: "I am the junior senator according to every law book in the nation."

There's just no way to put this delicately. Because the answer is: "No. No, you're not." You are not a senator until you are sworn in. And you don't get sworn in until the Senate admits you. You don't even have to look in the law books, it's right there in the Constitution itself. So please, Mr. Burris (or, if you prefer, "Senator-select Burris"), refrain from using the present tense ("am") when talking about whether you will be or will not be a senator. Because you aren't one yet.

In the immortal words of Joe Bob Briggs, "I'm surprised I have to explain this stuff."

Secondly, while the use of the verb "ordained" would have been correct if you had said "Governor Blagojevich has ordained that I be Illinois' next senator" (since "to ordain" can be used with such a specific secular and political meaning), it is somewhat of a stretch to say that "the Lord has ordained" that you be senator.

And thirdly, you simply have to get your supporters (Bobby Rush in particular) to calm their own rhetoric down. Here is Representative Rush, on December 9, before Blagojevich named Burris:

I believe that the acts that are alleged to have been committed by the Governor are so heinous that he has forfeited his right to appoint someone to fill the seat of President-Elect Barack Obama. My bottom line is that the Governor should not be the one to make the appointment to this important office.

Here is Rush after Burris was appointed:

Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the U.S. Senate. I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer. I don't think that anyone -- any U.S. senator who's sitting in the Senate right now -- wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate.

Rush also called the Senate "the last bastion of plantation politics." And in an interview with CBS, he said (about the Senate blocking Burris): "I'm sure that the U.S. Senate doesn't want to see themselves in the same position" as Orval Faubus, George Wallace, and "Bull" Connor. He was also quoted saying: "We are just faced with a hard-headed room of people in the Senate who want to keep an African-American out of the Senate."

This, it should be noted, is not just "playing the race card." This is a new level of such political cardsharpery, and should be referred to as "throwing the entire race deck in the air, in a game of 52-Race-Card-Pickup." Rush didn't stop there, though, he also framed it in religious language:

My prayers have been answered, because I prayed fervidly that the governor would ... appoint an African American. We need to have not just one African American in the U.S. Senate. We need to have many African Americans in the U.S. Senate.

It needs to be said quite clearly: this isn't about race, and this isn't about religion. This is about a constitutional argument over the text of Article I, Section 5: "Each house shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members...." Specifically, the word "qualifications." It's a legal argument, and a valid case can be made either way. For excluding Burris, you take "qualifications" at face value, and say that it means a majority of senators can vote to exclude anyone they deem not to have the proper qualifications. For seating Burris, you can argue that the only way this clause has ever been tested is in relation to the "appointee," and has never applied to scandal surrounding the "appointer."

While the media does a sloppy job of talking about precedents for this case (reaching back only a few decades), there are two interesting examples from much further back when the U.S. Senate showed its respective racism and religious bias on open display. The first was the seating of the first black Senator (there have only been five in all of United States history), in the Reconstruction Era. Hiram Rhodes Revels was named to the Senate by the Mississippi state legislature (this was before direct election of senators), which was packed with northern liberal carpetbaggers. Back then, northern liberals were Republicans (see: Abraham Lincoln). Southern racists were Democrats (see: "Yellow Dog" Democrat). How the political pendulum does swing over time, eh?

Revels faced a challenge when he entered the Senate as well. From a recent USA Today article on Revels:

Sen. Garrett Davis of Kentucky, a Democrat, mocked Republicans by declaring, "Oh ye Pharisees political! You who profess such obedience to the will of the people! You who represent universal democracy, not only the white man, but the Negro and the mulatto, and you now want to get in all the Mongolian race too!" He called Congress' 1866 law to extend citizenship to blacks a "farce."

This is what "plantation politics" looks like. This is what it looks like when the Senate tries to exclude someone for racial reasons. Of course, they had a technical legal reason for their challenge: senators have to be citizens for nine years, and since blacks were only made citizens two years earlier, he did not fit the "qualifications" to be seated. But, although the official United States Senate web page has what appears to be a blatant historical error on it ("Born 42 years earlier to free black parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina..."), Revels -- from all other reports I could find -- was born to a mixed-race father and a white mother. From the USA Today article: "Revels was born free in Fayetteville, N.C., and like Obama, was of mixed-race background. Revels' mother was white, of Scottish heritage, and his father was black with possibly some Croatan Indian lineage."

In any case, it being Reconstruction and all (when the South was excluded from Congress), he was accepted by the Republican-dominated Senate on a 48-8 vote.

The second historical case is where the Senate again showed its bigotry by attempting to block the first senator from Utah, after it was admitted as a state. Reed Smoot was blocked from voting (although the Senate did allow him to be sworn in) for two years while the Senate investigated not just whether Smoot was a polygamist (he wasn't) but also dissected the entire Mormon religion. I've written about "The Story of Smoot" before, actually. From my previous article:

But while Smoot wasn't a serial marriage type of guy, he was pretty high up in the church hierarchy of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). So the entire LDS church was put under the public microscope of a Senate investigation. Two full years were spent examining the Mormons, and the head of the church was called before the committee to be grilled on every aspect of the Mormonism, down to secret church rituals and dogma. The media of the day went along for the ride, with scandalous charges printed along with demonizing political cartoons. The hearings were packed, with lines outside for spectators to view.

Also, from historian Kathleen Flake:

The four-year Senate proceeding created a 3,500-page record of testimony by 100 witnesses on every peculiarity of Mormonism, especially its polygamous family structure, ritual worship practices, "secret oaths," open canon, economic communalism, and theocratic politics. The public participated actively in the proceedings. In the Capitol, spectators lined the halls, waiting for limited seats in the committee room, and filled the galleries to hear floor debates. For those who could not see for themselves, journalists and cartoonists depicted each day's admission and outrage. At the height of the hearing, some senators were receiving a thousand letters a day from angry constituents. What remains of these public petitions fills 11 feet of shelf space, the largest such collection in the National Archives.

That is what religious bigotry in the Senate looks like.

So while the media circus surrounding Burris' appointment works itself into an absolute frenzy over what will happen when Burris arrives in Washington, I say again that Blagojevich himself is the real master politician here. Because, although his political demise is almost guaranteed at this point (and is indeed inching ever closer), he has managed to successfully redirect the spotlight of the media's glare from himself to Burris, the Senate, Barack Obama, racial politics, and even what God may or may not have to say about things. Considering the position Blaggy currently finds himself in, that's a pretty stupendous act of media misdirection. You can almost hear a thundering voice (full of explosions and fury) say:

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain... at least not for another few days...."

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com