Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was eager to hit the ground running in 2009. Then, with the cameras rolling, he planted his first step firmly on an upturned rake.
We can only hope that the Lesson of Roland Burris left a lasting impression on the Senate leader. But so far, all that we have seen is that the Democratic leader has much to learn about leading his newer, stronger majority in a new age that is driven not by the old muscle politics, but by the power of streaming video politics.
Facing the multiple crises of an economy in shambles, two wars and a conflagration in Gaza, Reid started 2009 by picking a fight he should have known he and his party were never going to win. And then looking bad losing it.
It began when Illinois’ Gov. Rob Blagojevich, arrested on charges of crooked politics including trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat, appointed the long-retired state comptroller and attorney general Burris, who three decades ago was the first black to win statewide office, to replace Obama. The Reid-led Democrats called Burris’ appointment tainted and kept inventing reasons to bar him from their club. Mainly, that the Illinois secretary of state wouldn’t sign a paper certifying the governor’s choice, a nuance that a state court would soon resolve.
As the controversy was playing on cable news, a respected legal voice convinced me that Reid was leading his fellow Democrats into quicksand. Stanley Brand, a former Democratic counsel to House of Representatives, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the Democrats’ position "just smelled legally wrong to me from the beginning … The only issue was, was this guy a governor with the power to do what he did."
It got worse. On a rainy January 6, Burris went to the Capitol to present his credentials to Senate authorities and take his seat. What Reid needed to do — if he had the slightest savvy about the power of visual news images — was work out all of the arrangements with Burris in advance. So it would all be handled with dignity with the cameras rolling and the world watching.
But what happened instead was as ugly as it was dumb. The Senate barred Burris from using the door other first-termers used. The 71-year-old was battered amid an un-policed swirl of cameras and technicians lurching toward metal detectors ordinary people must use. His credentials were denied and he was again out in the rain. All on camera.
Meanwhile, another bizarre made-for-TV moment showed how Reid had wrong-footed himself. In a phone call, Reid, who is from Nevada, gave Blagojevich advice on possible Senate appointees. Blagojevich later said Reid rejected three black potential candidates (Rep. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Danny Davis, state Sen. Emil Jones) saying they couldn’t win in 2010, but had approved of others who were white.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked: "Is that what you said, that these men would not be acceptable?" "This is part of Blagojevich’s cloud," Reid began. "He’s making all this up. I had a conversation with him. I don’t remember what was in the conversation … I didn’t tell him who not to appoint. He’s making all this up to divert attention…
"Don’t you think these conversations are on tape?" Gregory pressed. " … So he’s wrong, Jesse Jackson Jr. was always acceptable to you?"
Reid, an ex-boxer, alternated between the bob-and-weave and the rope-a-dope: "Jesse Jackson Jr. is somebody that I think would be a good senator. And for Blagojevich to start throwing out these names of people who I wanted and didn’t want … He’s making it up."
So far, we have no idea whether the truth is closer to "these names of people who I wanted and didn’t want," or "he’s making it up."
But the majority leader had to battle to convince us not to believe a governor who’d just been arrested and impeached. A rather unleader-like way to start 2009.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)