"I am the greatest"

Roland Burris, Blago's choice for U.S. senator, has never been shy about his erstwhile achievements.

By Kevin Berger
January 1, 2009 1:15AM (UTC)
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Ace Chicago news reporters are mining their archives to bring the rest of the country up-to-date on Roland Burris, the surprise choice of a defiant Rod Blagojevich to adopt the U.S. Senate seat of soon-to-be-prez Barack Obama. With barely restrained glee, they are replaying Burris' unabashed penchant for brimming self-regard.

"The 71-year-old Burris -- who often refers to himself in the third person -- has never been shy about broadcasting his ambitions and loudly celebrating his achievements," writes Andrew Herrmann of the Chicago Sun-Times. When Burris ran for governor in 2002, his third unsuccessful try at the job, he told the paper's Kate Grossman: "Roland Burris, who started way down here, in the segregation of a southern Illinois community, was able to set goals, plan and strategize and make it."


Appparently Roland Burris' confidence had long been in place. In a 1994 interview with the Sun-Times, Herrmann informs us, "Burris said his past success -- he had been elected comptroller and attorney general -- was 'divine providence' that began at age 15 when he decided to become a lawyer and officeholder."

Over at the Chicago Tribune, Ray Long informs readers that Burris, a stickler for preparation, "has built a mausoleum for himself in Oak Woods Cemetery on the South Side. Carved under the words 'TRAIL BLAZER' is a long list of accomplishments, to which he had hoped to add, 'First black governor in Illinois history.'"

Along their merry way, the reporters point out a more sober fact about Burris, who as attorney general in 1992 vigorously sought the death penalty -- a Burris deputy resigned in protest -- for a suspected murderer later cleared by DNA. They also note that local politicos didn't see Burris quite as he saw himself.


During Burris' 2002 run for governor, David Axelrod -- yes, that David Axelrod -- told Grossman of the Sun-Times, "I think one of his challenges is to project a vision." To which Burris responded: "I disagree 1,000 percent. I am visionary. How do you think I got to where I am?" Grossman concluded her article with a swell anecdote about Burris once performing as Muhammad Ali in a skit before journalists, lobbyists and politicians. "Wearing shorts and boxing gloves, he wasn't shy about repeating one of Ali's famous lines: 'I am the greatest.'"

Of course, that was many fights ago. As Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader points out, Burris' recent forays into the political ring have hardly floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. Acknowledging that Burris was once "considered a smart, pragmatic, progressive politician," Dumke states that "over the last, oh, decade and a half, he's shown a mastery of losing elections." (He includes a nifty timeline to underscore his point.) In fine wag fashion, Dumke leaves us with a parting thought: "If, as they've stated repeatedly, Senate leaders refuse to seat anybody stained with the 'impropriety' of Blago, Burris may end up pulling off yet another impressive feat -- losing a bid for an office after he was appointed to it."


Kevin Berger

Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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