As far as television series go, The Wire set the stage for realistic depiction of street crime and politics, without necessarily drawing a line between the two. That premise worked well because of the criminal and political world favoring the dramatic, egotistical lead characters. Black politics — like any politics — has its share of character, but maybe because of our attention to the charismatic, some black leaders have relied heavily on the grandiose messenger archetype. The rolling lilt of Southern preachers eased the gravitas of their true struggle. The sleek militancy and simple black clothing of the Black Panther Party made their steely side an integral part of their public costume. But not all of the politics of public forums, glad-handing and baby-kissing appeals to our humble leaders. In fact, before the New York Times’s Matt Bai got his trousers in a twirl over the “death” of traditional black politics (read: showy, ethnocentric), politicians like Condoleezza Rice had already made careers out of being the anti-celebrity. The resume was the new sermon on the mount, and carefully consigned associations to the establishment made for better careers than Million Man Marches.
Roland Burris came from this incognito tradition, sealing his name at Howard University, in the Illinois political structure as Attorney General, and eventually accepting the Senate seat previously occupied by Barack Obama. So pardon his momentary indignance at being told that members of his own party will be leading a fight against his selection because of Rod Blagojevich’s misdeeds. It’s the equivalent of becoming the best mid-level executive at your esteemed company, learning the company has crooks and frauds at the top, and still doing your best to maintain a scratch-free reputation. Where Burris has not been a standout in his microphone grabbing, he has been true to the rules and feels he deserves his day in the sun. The Obama Senate Seat may become known as The Black Seat in the house, and it will come with privilege and prestige that Burris has long sought in his dutiful public service. He wants that feather in his cap.
How he has gone about keeping his good name, however, is another story. Essentially, Roland Burris has had his first dance with the politics of theater, the race card and national exposure, and squeezed what little dignity he had left through the pens of a thousand columnists. Burris has every right to feel as if he has been the fair player in the situation, and that the Illinois governor has the smear so he should account for it. But the incorrect pretense is that anyone cares about the “Good Man” in the dirty shop, not to mention the fact that Burris has been the runner-up enough times to convince us that voters tend to choose the best for the job…and some get left behind. Burris lost to Blagojevich, once upon an election, and his career has been marked by strong-but-second-place results.
And that’s no discredit to Burris as a man. He has won his accolades, and his attention to civic engagement makes him peerless as a worker in that field. But politics, as we know, involves the gambit of our nation’s best thinkers and entertainers. Never one for the show, it seems misplaced that Burris has taken to the sermon on the mount apparatus. Burris arrived to the courthouse steps to defend his name with Bobby Rush in tow, and a chorus of Black supporters to further his case that the seat should be reserved for someone black — from suggestive to assertive in a beat. Now, as a lifetime member of the NAACP, and a proven leader for the Black community, Burris has his just desserts, but every time he has brought race into the fold as a certifier of his skills, he falls hopelessly short. Bobby Rush is the master of identity-baiting, just as his precursor Al Sharpton is. But Roland Burris has never won with theatrics, and this is not the time to start trotting out tricks that never worked for him in the first place. The Wire’s Clay Davis had a defining moment in the character’s final run in which every old political ally walked out on him because his morality didn’t stand up against his service for the community. And although he knew he had short-changed the community who stood with him cheering for a defiant press appearance, he went on anyway with the show.
Burris will kill his political career in this hurried moment if he chooses opportunism and celebrity over playing his position. He has become a journeyman through obeying the fastidious rules of the land, and letting the chips fall where they may. If the rules keep him out of his desired Senate seat, he will have to do what so many have done before him: bow out gracefully. Otherwise, he will be another in the long line of Black Celebrity Politicians whose promises and bluster eventually swept the curtain away with puny men left in the shadows.