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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 04:43 am

The lies and demise of Roland Burris

We need a higher standard than telling the truth

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Sen. Roland Burris arrives for a meeting at Illinois State University in Bloomington, Feb 17. Burris has now acknowledged he sought to raise campaign funds for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the request of the governor's brother, at the same time he was mak
Terrence Antonio James/MCT

It is a sad and sickening sound, that of another good reputation gurgling down the drain. Only a few weeks ago, Roland Burris was remembered as a trailblazer in Illinois politics, who had served ably in two statewide offices. Now he will forever be regarded as, at best, a fool, at worst a criminal liar.

He follows in a line of men whose reputations recently changed from plus to minus in a matter of minutes. Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson and Alex Rodriguez come to mind. Each circumstance is a bit different, but together they add up to an outbreak. They may belong in a different category than George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, whose sins seem more serious, and Bill Clinton may need another category still. But for now they can all be lumped together as old boys getting caught.

What is going on? The common belief is that you can’t get to the top without cutting a few corners. Then if you cut a few and get away with it, you think you can cut more.

One explanation is that they’re all corrupt. “Goodness, that’s a nice string of pearls,” the admirer said to Mae West. “Honey,” she replied, “goodness had nothing to do with it.” Yet most of us know enough honest leaders to make cynicism an unsatisfactory explanation.

Some of the problem lies in how people are picked. Never mind that it was Rod Blagojevich who pulled Roland Burris out of retirement obscurity to fill the vacant senate seat; Pat Quinn might have arrived at the same choice. Nobody was looking for a world-changer. Just somebody safe, who would go along with the Democrats’ program. That’s why Dick Durbin and Harry Reid ultimately went along with the Burris appointment – he seemed mediocre, but safe.

Then Burris quickly got in over his head. It is pathetic now to see how much he wanted the job, how many people he told he was interested. Of course Blagojevich wanted something in exchange, but Burris knew he couldn’t offer anything that would look like he was trying to “curry favor,” so he had to dance around. Then at the impeachment hearing, so close to the prize, he may have thought silence was not the same thing as a lie. “There were several facts that I was not given the opportunity to make during my testimony to the impeachment committee,” he said later.

Even now, the guy just doesn’t seem to understand the world of trouble he’s created both by not telling the truth and by lying. “So if I didn’t give any money, I didn’t raise any money, why would I be having the problems that I’m having?” he asked reporters. “Somebody please explain this to me.” Well, Mr. Burris, it’s a little late for that.

The task is not just to find leaders who know how to tell the truth. It is to go far beyond that to pick people who know how to speak the truth, in the way that antislavery activist William Lloyd Garrison wrote about in 1831. “I will speak God’s truth in its simplicity and power,” he said in his newspaper. “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. I am in earnest – I will not equivocate – I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch – and I will be heard.” < span class="text35">

In today’s political world, those who are speaking the truth are not likely to be seen as candidates for public office. But they’re the real leaders. “To speak a word of truth,” said Paolo Friere, “is to transform the world.” Speaking out about racism, taxes, economics, or war alienates too many people for political success. But if we find somebody who is neither safe nor mediocre, willing to go against the grain, chances are that person has already given up the kind of traditional ambition that fosters lies.

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