Zipping His Lip

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009 11:02 AM

When Roland Burris was trying to fight his way into the Senate, he talked to journalists around the clock, held impromptu news conferences and went on every television show that would have him.

Now that he has told four or five versions of his involvement with the banished Blago and there are calls for his political scalp, the Illinois Democrat has changed his approach to the press.

Henceforth, he declared yesterday in a speech describing himself as too busy with public policy to deal with this tawdriness, he will not "engage the media and have facts drip out on a selective basis."

There's a word for that approach. It's called stonewalling.

I'll leave it to others to judge whether Burris should be sent packing. But when you start complaining about selective sound bites, what it really means is that you don't want to answer journalists' questions. In fact, Burris refused to answer an audience question on the scandal at Chicago's City Club.

What's to stop Burris from doing an extended live interview on his dealings with the Blago crowd, so it can't be cut up into snippets? Heck, he's welcome to come on my show and take his best shot.

Burris's problem, of course, is that he insisted he had limited contact with the gang around Rod Blagojevich but later said in an affidavit that he had discussions about raising money for the embattled governor. What's more, he actually made calls to raise cash for said embattled governor.

In other words, the very argument that he made to be seated -- that, whatever the ethical concerns swirling around Blago, he, Burris, was untainted -- has now evaporated.

Burris originally framed the Senate's attempt to keep him out in racial terms, and the Democrats realized it would politically difficult to exclude someone who, in replacing Barack Obama, would be its only African American member. But the Chicago fundraising mess in which Burris is now enmeshed is not a question of black or white but one of green.

Whether Burris can hang on for the duration of his two-year term depends in part on whether the media will grow tired of the story once he withdraws the oxygen of providing interviews.

"Sen. Roland Burris' failure to fully disclose his ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has put his future in the Senate 'in question,' Sen. Dick Durbin said Wednesday," the Chicago Tribune reports. "Even as Burris urged Illinois politicians and citizens to 'stop the rush to judgment,' the remarks by Durbin -- and those by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- captured the political maelstrom that has engulfed Illinois' junior senator in his first month on the job."

This column by the Trib's John Kass suggests that the lawmaker's standing at home isn't real high:

"Sen. Roland 'Tombstone' Burris (D-Lying Weasel) insisted he was the Real Roland Burris, which must mean that some sneaky impostor is out there, doing evil deeds in our senator's name."

At Real Clear Politics, Tom Bevan recalls Burris's earlier words:

"Roland Burris may be toast. . . . Burris fought his way tooth and nail to get into the United States Senate. But he also played the race card at the same time he told people not to convict him of guilt by association. Now, however, there is the admission of an association, the revelation of having told a string of lies, and his race has nothing to do with it."

How much clout do the media really have in this situation? Commentary's Jennifer Rubin examines the question:

"When the New York Times called for Tom Daschle to step down from HHS, it took less than twenty-four hours. The Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post call [Wednesday] for Roland Burris to go, in light of his revelation that, well, yes, there really was a quid pro quo of some type and Burris hadn't been forthcoming about it under oath.

"So will the 'deux ex op-ed' do the trick this time? Well, that would mean Burris was capable of being shamed into resignation as Daschle was. Or it would require that the Democrats decide to boot out Burris, which seems possible but not imminent. And then what -- another appointee?

"This three-ring circus is the result of allowing the Illinois political machine to run amok. It sounds like the job of the Agent of Change to clean up his own state and party."

Liberals, including Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, aren't exactly rushing to the appointed senator's defense:

"No one has accused Burris of corruption, per se. The problem here is that he wanted the Senate seat, and was apparently afraid if he disclosed his contacts with Blagojevich's office and attempts to raise money for him, Burris would be tainted by the impeached governor's scandal. The senator seems to have decided, then, to hide relevant details, even when asked about contacts under oath.

"This won't end well for him."

Roger Simon says Burris is stung because "the media no longer are in love with him. Not that long ago, the media were at his feet. And they were there for the same reason the U.S. Senate gave him a pass when it seated him: Nobody wanted to be accused of racism. The race card was played and played hard on behalf of Burris from the very beginning. There was no need for Barack Obama's Senate seat to be filled immediately. (Minnesota still has only one U.S. senator, after all, and the people there seem to be getting along just fine, or at least as fine as anybody is getting along these days.) . . .

"But -- wouldn't you know it? -- some of Burris' statements turned out to be not exactly 100 percent correct. And, oh yeah, Burris now says he did agree to make an effort to raise campaign funds for Blagojevich at the same time Burris was trying to get Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate. Whoops. I guess Burris should have mentioned that upfront."

What did Illinois Democrats know, when did they know it and what, if anything, does the timing of the scandal have to do with last week's Senate vote on the stimulus bill? At Right Wing Nuthouse, Rick Moran offers a useful tick-tock:

"If this mess with Burris had been made public back on February 5 when the Illinois senator submitted his 'corrected' affadavit to the Democratic Majority Leader, there is a pretty good chance that the Illinois senator would not have been able to vote on the stimulus bill in the senate on the 13th.

"Why? Because pressure would have been building -- as it is now -- for the 'lying little sneak' to resign his seat. It seems surreal but Roland Burris has now changed his story about contacts with Governor Blagojevich's henchmen about the senate seat at least 4 times -- twice yesterday alone. If he had been forced to resign in a similar time period that is shaping up now, there would have been no 60th vote on the stimulus bill in the senate, no cloture, and the bill would have been sent back to conference.

"So which Democrats knew of this affadavit and why wasn't it made public immediately? Burris says he sent the affadavit to the chairman of the impeachment committee who then promptly sat on it until the Chicago Sun Times got wind of the story at which point Burris himself gave it to the newspaper. The committee chairman was Barbara Flynn Currie, House Majority Leader." She claims she hadn't focused on his submission.

What's the initial media take on Obama's $75 billion mortgage aid plan? Does anyone have a feel for whether it will work, given the inherent complexity and the difficulties of separating deserving from undeserving borrowers?

"Mr. Obama struck a populist note, criticizing speculators and 'lenders who knowingly took advantage of homebuyers' with the same vehemence he used in going after Wall Street bankers for giving themselves bonuses as their companies were seeking government help," the New York Times says.

"But the plan would not come close to preventing all foreclosures, because lenders would still have the last word on whether to make concessions. If a lender decides that the cost of the concessions is higher than the cost of foreclosing, even with the government subsidies, then a borrower will probably still lose the property."

Says the Wall Street Journal: "The plan drew praise for its use of incentives. But critics said it didn't do enough to address the difficulty of altering loans packaged into securities. It also will be harder for people to refinance their mortgages if their loans are deeply under water or aren't owned or guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. That would leave out many borrowers in hard-hit states such as Florida, California and Arizona . . .

"The plan is also notable for what it doesn't do, such as finding a way to spur demand. One problem dragging down the market is an oversupply of homes."

And the plan "essentially shuts out wealthy borrowers who would like to refinance but can't because they own expensive homes financed with so-called jumbo mortgages, which are too large to be owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."

Another foreclosure angle, in the L.A. Times:

"The Whittier house where Nadya Suleman, the mother of octuplets, and her six other children have been living with her parents is in pre-foreclosure, according to records.

"The three-bedroom, two-bath house is owned by Angela Suleman, the children's grandmother. A default notice was filed Feb. 9 for a loan that is $23,224 past due."

Since you're reading this online, you might be interested in my column on how newspaper Web sites are decimating print circulation and the various ideas being kicked around for how to get readers -- this means you -- to kick in some spare change to keep these enterprises afloat.

Bristol Palin's interview with Greta Van Susteren this week is a hot topic in the blogosphere, with Slate's Dahlia Lithwick says the governor's daughter is not exactly a great spokeswoman for abstinence:

"I'm afraid I have to agree that on the vapid-to-moving continuum, I'd put Bristol Palin's interview a lot closer to the vapid side of the spectrum. It wasn't just the likes and the ums; that's standard-issue and I do it, too. But I don't understand how someone who clearly wants to take on an advocacy role has given no thought at all to what it is she wants to advocate. As several of you have already noted, 'wait 10 years' and 'abstinence is not realistic' is just not a public service message. It's confusing, if not totally contradictory. Now I don't think I agree . . . that this is attention-seeking or career-planning on her part. Bristol mostly looks like she'd rather be pulling a dogsled through the tundra than giving this interview. I think she really does want her life to be an example to other teens. But since she doesn't seem to know what her message is, the net effect seems to be completely unrealistic and chaotic. ('I take care of him all the time except when I'm at school'?!).

"And Gov. Palin's glossy observation -- that having a baby at 18 is very unfortunate but also very fortunate -- only contributes to the sense that the only message here is: 'Don't do what I did. Unless you do."

Salon's Rebecca Traister suggests that the abortion policies espoused by Bristol's mother wouldn't give other pregnant women, or teens, the choice that Bristol says she had:

"Bristol Palin stuttering awkwardly in an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren and saying what many Americans already know all too well: that the idea of teenage abstinence is unrealistic.

"But more than just sound bites, Van Susteren's interview with Bristol (and her 'surprise-guest' mom) was a vivid reminder of how, sadly, this unremarkable high schooler got dragged into the spotlight by a Republican ticket anxious to paper over its party's family-values inconsistencies with the addition of a just-folks clan led by an Alaskan governor determined to use her family as an illustration of her policies. It was also an embodiment of all that was frustrating and tone-deaf about those policies, and about the governor's candidacy for the vice-presidency . . .

"Bristol, sitting down with the Palin-friendly Van Susteren, did not come across as any more eloquent or incisive on matters of sex, pregnancy and new motherhood than anyone would expect of an utterly average teenager, but she did offer up an inarticulate, bumbling and nakedly honest interview about how her life has changed since the birth of her son, Tripp, two months ago. Wittingly or not, she touched on issues close to the heart of reproductive rights activists and feminists who fiercely opposed her mother's candidacy: how her life is no longer her own, how she wishes she had waited 10 years, how the choice to have the child was hers and not her mother's and how abstinence was not a realistic answer. All this was discussed before the governor entered and robbed Bristol of her voice and her arguments, making a mash of everything her daughter had said so far."

Talk about crying foul -- BBC's Katty Kay finds the administration's conduct unsporting:

"In this baseball, basketball, and football loving White House, this insidiously sexist barrier to entry for female journalists is getting harder to overcome. Tim Russert did it, Chris Matthews does it, George Stephanopoulos, I'm told, does it, and, now on Pennsylvania Avenue, Robert Gibbs is the worst offender.

" 'Bottom of the fifth [inning], the sausage race is [at] the beginning of the next inning, so stay tuned, and the starting pitcher is in there, still throwing nice curveballs and [he's] still got a lot of heat on the fastball,' was how the new White House press secretary described the progress of the economic stimulus bill at a recent briefing, presumably quite seriously expecting most of the correspondents in the room to understand what on earth he was saying. Most of the men that is. Sports banter is a big part of Washington's male political bonding . . .

"I can talk politics with the best of them. I can even make reasonable sense of toxic mortgage assets. Give me Paris, Moscow, or Tokyo and I can usually muster an intelligent observation. But when the talk turns to innings, dunks and touchdowns, sorry, I've nothing remotely sensible to add."

Actually, Katty, you just got on the scoreboard.

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