Burton: A 'Pit Bull' in the Chair
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 19, 1997; Page A01
INDIANAPOLIS -- To his friends, Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican now running the House probe of political fund-raising, is an extraordinarily tenacious man. But even they say that the same relentless approach that has helped him triumph over many personal obstacles also has led him down some unusual paths.
Burton was so convinced that Vincent Foster was murdered that he launched a private investigation and reenacted the shooting of the White House aide. Burton has become a leading champion in Congress of Sikhs and Kashmiris in their conflict with the government of India. And that unusual crusade has resulted in lucrative political support: Nearly a quarter of the individual donations to Burton's 1996 campaign came from the Sikh and Kashmiri communities in the United States.
All this may be prologue for the challenge now facing the affable former insurance salesman with a self-described "pit bull" approach to politics. For years an obscure backbencher, Burton, 58, now finds himself for the first time in the public eye as the leader of a highly publicized congressional investigation.
His Senate counterpart, Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.), a former movie actor who was the GOP co-counsel for the Senate Watergate committee, was widely touted to be the dominant figure in this latest probe of Washington's financial underbelly. But so far Burton and the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee have been in the lead, issuing a flurry of subpoenas and promising more.
This has deeply upset committee Democrats, who have demanded a special meeting this week to sort out the probe's parameters and Burton's authority as chairman. But measured against his reputation and their initial unease, what Burton's Republican friends say about his conduct is so far, so good.
Burton's elevation to committee chairman caused "a natural apprehension," said Mitch Daniels, a former Reagan White House aide and longtime Burton friend who is a pharmaceutical company executive in Indianapolis. "I think people are going to be surprised. I somewhat shared that apprehension. But I talked to him and was really reassured."
"I think he understands some of the anxiety that attended word of his appointment," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), choosing his words carefully. "Because Dan has taken very strong viewpoints, some questioned whether he could coalesce the committee. But Dan has not had a position of responsibility before."
Burton is aware that sometimes, in the words of former Lugar aide Mark Helmke, he comes across as "this kind of crazy life insurance salesman."
"People have always thought I was very aggressive and they worry about that in a judicial position," Burton said. But he argued that the responsibility of his new position has transformed him.
"As chairman, I want my role to be more a judicial role, more of a referee," he said. "When we go public [in hearings], I think I have to be as measured as I can be and I will be."
Measured is not a word often associated with Burton's House career. First elected in 1982, he was an early acolyte of a future speaker, Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Burton was one of the conservative firebrands who spent hours haranguing an empty House chamber to the entertainment of the C-SPAN audience.
He waged a one-man crusade against what he deemed "pork," repeatedly challenging provisions of appropriations bills to the deep annoyance of senior members of both parties. Even Socks, the first cat, came under his scrutiny. Burton once publicly questioned the use of White House personnel to answer letters addressed to the Clinton family pet. He now laughs this off as a "mistake" dreamed up by a staff aide.
In 1994, Burton engaged in what many consider his most outrageous crusade. In lengthy speeches on the House floor, he challenged the official finding that the death of deputy White House counsel Foster was a suicide. There were dark if unspoken suggestions in Burton's insistence that Foster's body had been moved and that he did not die in Virginia's Fort Marcy Park, where the body was found.
At one point during his personal investigation, Burton fired a gun at a "head-like thing" (which he still won't identify) in his back yard to prove, he says, that the sound of a gunshot in the park would have been heard by security guards at the nearby residence of the Saudi Arabian ambassador.
"I do not recant on any of it," Burton said. "I still believe that his body was moved but I'm not going to beat on that." If Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr concludes, as have other prosecutors, that Foster's death was a suicide, and there are no new revelations, "I'm not going to reopen that investigation," Burton said.
Another Burton obsession is the AIDS virus. As with the Foster case, he attracted attention, and considerable criticism, when he proposed mandatory AIDS testing for everyone in the country. According to former representative Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), Burton is so concerned with AIDS that he will not eat soup in a restaurant.
During a recent interview across a white tablecloth in the dining room of the Hillcrest Country Club, where he is now a member, Burton was asked about this and whether he perhaps felt safer in his own country club, where he was at the moment eating a bowl of onion soup. "I'm very careful," he said, not answering directly. Jacobs, he added, "must have just misunderstood something."
Jacobs, who did not seek reelection to Congress last year, defeated Burton in 1970 in the young Republican's first of three tries to win a House seat. During the 14 years they later served together in the House, they forged an unlikely but warm friendship.
Jacobs recalled how in 1983 the newly elected Burton "introduced me to some of his freshman Republican friends by saying, "This is Andy Jacobs. I ran a dirty campaign against him in 1970 and he beat me and I deserved it."
"Now work on disliking someone who can say that," Jacobs said.
There is another aspect to Burton that is not widely known. Although he loves the golf course, this is no child of the country club set. For the first 12 years of his life, Burton lived a nomadic, poverty-stricken and often brutal existence.
His father, Charles, a 6-foot-8, 280-pound petty con man, dragged the family across 38 states, frequently beating his wife, Dan and his younger brother and sister, Burton said.
"I was beaten," he said. "I would get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and my dad would beat me because I was staying awake. And then when I went to bed and wet the bed he beat me. He beat my mother all the time. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with her screaming, throwing lamps through the windows trying to get the police. Nobody ever came."
Burton's brother, Woody, a Republican state representative in Indiana, recalled that after his father served a two-year prison term, he returned to confront his former wife, who had remarried. "He got out of the car and threatened to take us," Woody Burton said. "My sister ran out of the house with a shotgun and handed it to my brother." Dan Burton, 14, faced down the towering figure of his father.
Such experiences "made Dan a fighter," his brother said. "If he believes in something, he's not going to back down."
"I've seen a lot of people who were abused either go into withdrawal or denial or they become overly aggressive," Dan Burton said. "I don't think I'm overly aggressive, but anyone will tell you I'm very push-ahead, keep-moving."
That approach applies to all phases of life. When, as a 12-year-old, Burton first played golf with friends here, he shot 169 for 18 holes and lost more than two dozen balls. Humiliated, he set out to conquer the game. He practiced his swing all winter and by the next summer he was regularly beating his friends. Years later, as an 18-year-old high school senior, he won the Indiana state golf championship.
Burton also sees a link between his early life and some of his legislative activities. He is a sponsor of the V-chip legislation requiring that new television sets include a device that allows parents to block objectionable programs.
"Anything that causes violence and abuse with kids and women really concerns me, and I've seen an awful lot that I think leads to violence and abuse on TV, these shows and sex and stuff," he said. "So I just thought that parents ought to have more control."
Burton is perhaps best known as co-sponsor of the Helms-Burton Act, which is aimed at tightening the U.S. trade embargo against Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. "I just can't stand tyrants," Burton said, and Castro "is a tyrant, he's a bully, he mistreats people for his own purposes."
The congressman has taken up other, relatively obscure causes that he believes involve the mistreatment of the weak by the powerful, including that of the Sikhs and Kashmiris.
In reports for the 1996 election cycle, Burton listed 413 individual contributions. Only 71 were from his fellow Hoosiers. By contrast, more than 100 donations came from the Sikh and Kashmiri communities in the United States. He raised more money in Florida, mostly from Cuban Americans, than in Indiana.
"There has never been any quid pro quo," Burton said, invoking an already familiar mantra in the fund-raising investigation. "I took up their cause long before I started getting any money from them."
More recently, Burton has come under fire for accepting an invitation from AT&T to play in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Golf Tournament in California while his committee is considering major telecommunications legislation. Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski (D-Pa.), a committee member, defends Burton's participation but says the criticism is rooted in the kind of thinking that Burton sometimes uses to level charges at others.
He said Burton, who attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary and Indiana University but does not have a college degree, is prone to what is known in logic as post hoc fallacies ("after this, therefore because of this"). "He's not a logically reasoning person sometimes," Kanjorski said.
After the November elections, Kanjorski said, the fiercely partisan Burton "showed a tremendous softening" as he prepared to assume the chairmanship. But Kanjorski accuses Burton of not living up to his kinder, gentler rhetoric. While the Senate has finally broken a stalemate over the terms of its investigation, the House committee remains sharply divided over such issues as how much of its budget will go to the Democrats and Burton's insistence that he has unilateral authority to issue subpoenas and release information.
"I'm disappointed," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat. "I would have thought here was an opportunity to work together on an investigation that would have a lot of credibility and get away from the usual partisan shots. But it looks like we're heading down the path of this investigation being a partisan one."
Not so, Burton insists. "I think most people will say I did a fair job," he said.
At the center of the fund-raising storm in Washington, of course, are President Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Burton and Clinton have been allies on a few issues, including the V-chip, and Burton said "there are so many things he's doing that I like it's not funny." But that will not alter the investigation.
"I know you're not going to believe this, but I think it's bad for the country if the president gets taken down," Burton said. "I don't want to see any president run out of town. I didn't want to see [that happen to] Richard Nixon. But if it leads to something like that you've got to pursue it."
He does not want the probe to end with anything as dramatic as Nixon's downfall, but Burton can barely conceal his excitement as he begins the hunt.
"This could end up being a Watergate type of thing," he said. "This is big, big stuff. Every day it's getting bigger and bigger."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company