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Rain on Burris's Circus Parade

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Senator-designate Roland Burris (D-Blagojevich) was damp and displeased.

He had come to Washington to be sworn in as the junior senator from Illinois, but he was cast out by the Senate secretary and instead wound up, his overcoat soaked and his eyeglasses dripping, in a muddy patch of land across Constitution Avenue from the Capitol known as "The Swamp."

"I presented my credentials to the secretary of the Senate," the diminutive figure announced to reporters, and was "advised that my credentials were not in order and I would not be accepted." Still, he added, "I am not seeking to have any type of confrontation."

Of course not. He was seeking to have a circus -- and he succeeded.

It could not have surprised Burris, the legitimate appointee of an illegitimate governor, that Senate Democrats would refuse to admit him as one of their own, at least for now. Senators have their drivers take them past the security checkpoint to the Senate carriageway; Burris had to disembark on Constitution Avenue and walk in the rain. Senators can take the marble staircase to the senators-only entrance; Burris -- belittled as a mere "regular citizen" by the cop at the door -- had to go through the guardhouse with the metal detector. For Burris, there was no senators' dining room, senators' elevator or senators' restroom yesterday -- and certainly no floor privileges.

Instead, he was greeted by more than 100 reporters, who braved the cold rain to stick their cameras and microphones in his face, making it necessary for police to come to his aid: "Make a hole! Leave a path! Let him come through! Let him breathe!" TV cameras banged into heads. Sound men walking backward tripped and fell. Burris himself stumbled. CNN carried some of the mayhem live, with shaky footage resembling a scene from "The Blair Witch Project." Half a dozen Burris aides and lawyers, doubling as bodyguards, made a point of referring to their client by his not-yet-acquired title. "Senator," one of them called out, "this is how Brad Pitt feels."

Burris, in the middle of the scrum, posed for the cameras. "I'm just on display," he said.

He has been displaying himself rather prominently since last week, when Blagojevich, the disgraced Illinois governor, appointed Burris to the very same Senate seat Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell. Burris, 71, has seen his political star fade in recent years and accepted with delight -- and with no worries about the Blagojevich taint or the hostility of Senate Democrats. "I'm enjoying this on behalf of the people of Illinois," he said Monday in one of his many news conferences. Further, he told them, "I am the magic man."

The magic man's media tour -- which has taken him from NBC's "Today" show and PBS to CNN and MSNBC to most any newspaper reporter who calls -- continued yesterday morning, with CBS News's "The Early Show," when he predicted that he would be sworn in on Tuesday. "I do believe I will be," he said.

But when it came time to swear in the new senators at noon, there was no Burris in the chamber. Vice President Cheney sat in the presiding officer's chair for perhaps the final time. The man who will succeed him, Joe Biden, carried a Bible so large it looked like an original Gutenberg. Former lawmakers such as Fred Thompson, Howard Baker, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott came back to hobnob. Aides showed new senators to their desks. The president pro tempore, Robert Byrd, shouted his agreement with the chaplain's prayer. And when the swearings-in were done, lawmakers retired to the Old Senate Chamber for photographs with family.

But Burris enjoyed no such ceremony. "We're not taking questions! You can just take pictures!" one of his aides shouted as the media mob circled Burris's party outside the Capitol. The aspiring senator began playfully but became anxious and puffed out his cheeks when he had to wait to cross the street and the mob became unruly: "Watch him! Trampling flowers! Get down! Curb! Ooh! Right here! Pole!" By the time he made his way to the building entrance, he greeted the Senate sergeant-at-arms, Terrance Gainer, with a grateful hug.

Inside, Senate staffers made sure that Burris got nowhere near the chamber. They escorted him instead to Senate Secretary Nancy Erickson's office on the third floor, where he tried, without success, to persuade her to accept his credentials. After 20 minutes, he was escorted back out into the rain, and another bout with the media mob. This time, Burris looked nervous; he clutched the arm of a Senate official as a security officer served as blocker. "Stay right on my shoulders," he coached Burris.

As the scrum pushed across Constitution Avenue, CNN's Dana Bash broadcast live using her cellphone. "Heidi, can you hear me? . . . This is such a madhouse, frankly, with the press and the people around him. . . . It's craziness that is going on here."

Burris spotted a man in a wheelchair and signed his postcard printed with Burris's photo and the words "Senator Roland Burris." A Burris supporter? "I'm just an autograph collector," explained the man, Mike Harrison of Silver Spring.

A Capitol police officer, mistakenly thinking the horde was waiting for the arrival of the vice president-elect's motorcade, warned reporters not to "mob me when Biden comes out."

"No, we don't want him," a reporter called back. "We got four years of him." Sadly, the half-life of Senator Burris of Blagojevich is likely to be much shorter.

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