Take this! And that!

By Kevin Alexander Gray

It looks like former Illinois attorney general and comptroller Roland Burris will fill Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, now that the president-elect has climbed down from his high horse and signaled to his Democratic colleagues that there’s nowhere to go with their widely touted plans for obstruction. There are several lessons in the drama that has swirled around Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Most obvious is that when you’re playing politics, don’t be crass. Not unless you want the law to come down on your head. After all, beyond style, what’s the difference between Hillary Clinton’s demand that Barack Obama help retire her $45 million campaign debt and Blagojevich wanting payback for giving Obama the senator he wanted to replace him?

Blago has given the nation a bracing demonstration that money is, indeed, the mother’s milk of politics. The longer his scandal has dragged on, the more foolish and hypocritical his critics in politics — every one of them, including Obama, owing his position to some form of “pay to play” — has looked. But more important than that, the governor has provided a refresher course in due process and the presumption of innocence.

No doubt, Blago wasn’t aiming to give civics lessons from the start, but then being hauled away in handcuffs in your pajamas has a way of concentrating the mind. If he could be presumed guilty based on a prosecutor’s complaint, if he could be hounded from his job and anyone connected with him tainted with guilt by association, why have a criminal justice system at all? Why have trials and juries, and any legal rights at all?

Due process isn’t “a prosecutor accuses you so you’re guilty.” Blagojevich has a criminal complaint against him. He has not been formally charged with a particular crime or crimes. No jury has been seated. No trial has taken place. No panel of peers have convicted him, and no judge has sentenced him for anything. So, until there is an indictment, a trial and a jury that decides differently, Blagojevich maintains the presumption of innocence.

Americans have got used to the presumption of guilt. From celebrity arrests splashed on the front pages to the kid on the corner spread-eagle against a car, shown on the nightly news transported in cuffs, or chased down in Cops, the message is the same: he did it. If Jay Leno asked passers-by “What is due process?” in his “Jay Walking” person-on-the-street interviews, it’s unlikely he’d find anyone who could tell him straight that, if you’re arrested, it involves being charged, having a bond hearing, going to trial, and being freed or convicted by a jury of your peers.

Media disdain for due process has only grown as standard criminal procedures have more and more ruled out trials in favor of plea deals. Almost from the beginning, reporters and pundits were asking, “What will Blagojevich want in return for his cooperation with prosecutors?” It was left to the cursing, big-haired Blago to demonstrate that the presumption of innocence and due process are basic human and civil rights; and that those rights should be protected for everybody, even for those whose views or values we may not share and for those we may not like.

Funny thing, you would think that those who are sworn to “uphold and defend the Constitution” – from the Illinois Legislature to Harry Reid and other members of the Senate, no matter the party — would promote rights and not play so much to cloakroom and pop politics and trial by media. If only to protect their own ass. It also ought to be troubling to State Executives across the country that they too could be disempowered and impeached on accusation.

So Blago has done everyone a favor. Resigning or not carrying out the duties of his job could ring as an admission of guilt of sorts, a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. Now, “pleading the Fifth” has too long been taken as an admission of guilt in the culture at large. But not being compelled to testify against one’s self made sense when the Framers put it in place, and it makes sense now.

Likewise, guilt by association was a scandal in the Fifties, and it still is today. Now comes Roland Burris to the Senate. Some have accused him of being used by the governor.Others have opined that “he’s not ready for prime time.” A few more, such as Chicago reporter Lynn Sweet, all but called Burris stupid. In a television interview she rambled on about Burris’s inability to operate his cell phone’s voice mail as a measure of intelligence. A friend of mine asked me had I heard that “Burris has a mausoleum to himself on the Southside of Chicago with an empty space on the wall for ‘future accomplishments.’” Hell, so did George Jefferson! For those unfamiliar with the 1970s sitcom Good Times, Jefferson, a Napoleonic dry cleaning operator who was “movin’ on up, from the Southside,” opened a museum to himself with space left for future deeds. He charged his own wife, Weezie, the $1 admission (though he paid for her ticket).

We can laugh all we like at the pretensions of the upwardly striving, but Burris is hardly the first politician to enjoy memorials to himself. Every day I drive by a bronze statue of House Whip Jim Clyburn holding a golf club at the city driving range funded by federal dollars. The statue sits close to a railroad track, and on more than one occasion I’ve fantasized about tying a rope to it and lassoing it to a southbound train. Clyburn has more things named after him in South Carolina than the law should allow. Burris should place his appointment documents on his museum wall if that’s what he wants to do, and he should not have to “agree not to run in 2010,” as a chorus of voices have suggested. Now that the law has been followed and the appointment made, who serves or continues to serve should be left up to the voters. They may want to overhaul the whole process that allows governors to fill open Senate seats, but for now Blago was fully within his rights and Burris is fully qualified. There’s another civics lesson: constitutionally, the only qualifications for the Senate are age, citizenship and residency. All the rest is politics.

That said, Blagojevich comes out ahead in the Burris selection for other reasons. By appointing “the deacon” to the post, blacks rally around both him and Burris. It’s a swipe against Obama and his crew in that they don’t get who they want. More subtley, and just as ironic, Blagojevich calls out Obama on his serial slights and dismissals of the old black political class, while at the same time revealing Harry Reid and the white Senate leadership’s hypocrisy on race. (As an aside, it’s also a back of the hand to Jesse Jackson Jr. and his opportunism. Junior was a team player for Obama ’08, flogging his father in public in the interest of Obama. Junior and many assumed he would be high on Obama’s list. That wasn’t the case, as the prosecutor’s transcripts and Jackson’s entreaties to Blagojevich bear out.)

Race and racism hung in the air around Obama’s former seat long before it was revealed that Reid didn’t back any of the blacks publicly interested in the seat. That public disclosure, although met with the predictable righteous indignation, is why Reid is hard-pressed to deny Burris entry into the Senate. Add the spectre of Burris being physically barred from entering the chamber, as the Senate’s sergeant at arms loudly promised to do, and it added up to a situation that Obama couldn’t politically tolerate. As the controversy brewed, I got an email from one of the lawyers who represented Adam Clayton Powell Jr. back in the day, who offered his services to Burris for free. That’s to say, the Democratic Senators (and Obama as leader of the party) faced a potential Supreme Court challenge where even if they won they would lose.

All in all, then, the Blagojevich brouhaha shines a clear, bright light on how politics is played. There’s corruption, but through the mess a lot of truth has been revealed.

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Filed under 1ST LOOK | KAG 2009 Essays, Black Politics

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