Obama Defuses a Racial Bomb Ignited by Bobby Rush

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It was supposed to be just another absurd day in the absurd life of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Then Bobby Rush showed up.

Blagojevich held a mid-afternoon press conference Tuesday to name former Illinois Comptroller and Attorney General Roland Burris to Illinois’ vacant Senate seat, an act that stood in defiance of both the stated wishes of every Democratic senator in Washington and Majority Leader Harry Reid’s threat to refuse any Blagojevich appointee entrance into the Senate. The appointment, which the Secretary of State of Illinois stated he would not certify, would likely create weeks of legal wrangling and prolong the sideshow atmosphere surrounding Blago. So far, so bizarre, so good.

Then Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois’ 1st district stepped to the mic in support of Burris, who is black, and said, “I will ask you to not hang and lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer.” Lynch. That’s crazy even by Blago standards.

Let’s have no doubt: In a different world and at a different time, Burris would have legitimate claim to the seat. The first black man to win a major statewide office in Illinois, he served three terms as comptroller (beginning in 1979) and one as attorney general (beginning in 1991). In his era, he was popular throughout the state. He managed to serve for 16 years without scandal, which may be a record in Illinois. But despite his accomplishments, Burris cannot hope to untangle himself from the web of scandals woven by Blagojevich. And even if those scandals were not so all-consuming, few prominent politicians in Illinois would stand up for Burris: half want the seat he has been appointed to fill, and the other half would rather endorse someone who will be a future power player, someone who could repay the favor down the line. Few would see the sense in supporting a man who, though a distinguished public servant, is in his seventies and hasn’t held public office in over a decade.

But one of those few is Bobby Rush, a co-founder of the Illinois Black Panther Party who represents one of the most heavily African-American congressional districts in the country. In his 60s, with his run for higher office behind him (he lost a bid for mayor of Chicago against Richard M. Daley in 1999), Rush has no reason to support a young whippersnapper seeking a bright future. He can afford to support a fellow civil rights trailblazer. And he did so in racially charged terms:

Let me just remind you that there presently is no African- American in the U.S. Senate. Let me remind you that the state of Illinois and the people in the state of Illinois and their collective wisdom, have sent two African-Americans to the U.S. Senate….

This is a matter of national importance. There are no African- Americans in the Senate, and I don’t think that anyone — any U.S. senator, who’s sitting in the Senate, right now, wants to go on record to deny one African-American for being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don’t think they want to go on record doing that. And so, I intend to take that argument to the Congressional Black Caucus. I intend to take that argument to the senators.

Rush made an explicit attempt to recast the situation in racial terms. And he added a threat. Any senator who opposed Burris’ seating as the junior senator from Illinois — for any reason whatsoever, and there are many — desires an all-white body. That is to say, they are racist or, at the very least, insensitive to the need for diversity and no friend of minorities. Having just supported the first successful African-American presidential candidate in the nation’s history, Senate Democrats would feel awfully uneasy exercising an unprecedented power to lock out the man who would be the Senate’s only African-American. Especially after the race card had been so publicly played.

But then that first successful African-American presidential candidate stepped in and saved Harry Reid and his compatriots an awful lot of grief. He issued the following statement:

Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it. I believe the best resolution would be for the Governor to resign his office and allow a lawful and appropriate process of succession to take place.

Bobby Rush, who defeated Barack Obama years ago in a congressional race early in Obama’s career, had his race card very calmly picked up and placed back in his pocket. The Democratic Party, to introduce another metaphor, dodged a bullet. And Barack Obama had the opportunity to play the mediator and to remind everyone that, no, not every Illinois politician is flat-out crazy. It’s not clear where this saga will go from here, but because of Obama’s actions, opposing Burris won’t be considered racism anywhere outside of Bobby Rush’s Capitol Hill office.

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