Monday, March 16, 2009

Roland Burris in the Round

If I were still teaching journalism, Jeffrey Toobin's profile of Obama's Senate replacement in the New Yorker would be an example of what magazines do best--tell readers what they don't know they want to know until they read it.

In the furor about the blatant Rod Blagojevich, the new senator he appointed has been a stick figure, contradicting himself about pre-appointment contacts and stubbornly refusing calls for his resignation.

Toobin's piece gives him dimension:

"According to the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, a longtime student of Chicago politics, Burris 'was a soldier, part of the machine. He’s not a distinguished politician. He’s not a powerful political thinker.' Of course, this description hardly distinguishes Burris from many of his colleagues on Capitol Hill. In his very ordinariness, Burris may represent a triumph of sorts for the civil-rights movement, which was, at least in part, a struggle for black people to be seen as just like everybody else."

In the story of a poor kid from southern Illinois who as a teenager helped integrate a public swimming pool but was no radical reformer to the ambitious pol who couldn't get anywhere until he joined the Daley Machine to the straight-laced attorney general who was apparently willing to let an innocent man die rather stir up a commotion, we get a rounded picture of the man who, as he now goes about his Senate rounds, cheerfully tries to engage his colleagues but for the most part gets averted faces.

"In recent weeks," Toobin concludes, "a consensus seems to be forming that Burris will serve out Obama’s term, but will not run for another in 2010. Burris probably couldn’t win anyway, and he has now attained the goal that appears to mean most to him--adding United States senator to his list of achievements."

Those are on the now-famous mausoleum that has his "firsts" inscribed on granite, a few yards away from the modest marker on the grave of Jesse Owens, who made history in the 1930s as an African-American track star winning four Olympic medals in Hitler's Germany.

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