In the end, Washington proved kinder to Rep. Bill D. Burlison than the voters of Cape Girardeau, Mo. For six terms the Democrat served those Missouri voters in the capital. He earned respect and seniority on Capitol Hill. Then, in the summer of 1980, he realized he was in "political jeopardy" back home. He abandoned his training for the Marine Marathon, left his house in Prince George's County and went home to his constituents.
It was too late. His constituents had had enough of the blue-eyed ex-Marine who seemed too liberal for them. Local newspapers called for his resignation following reports of his involvement in several controversial incidents. Conservative groups declared him a political target. In November, his constituents joined a nationwide trend and elected their first Republican congressman since the 1920s. Burlison's Missouri political career was buried in a shroud of controversy and mistrust.
Now he is running for a seat on the Prince George's County Council.
"I didn't know him before he announced," said William B. Amonett, the Prince George's council member whose seat Burlison wants. "Apparently he was a member of Congress and happened to live in Prince George's. . . . I can't for the life of me see why anyone who was a member of Congress would want to run for County Council."
Burlison, who still lives with his wife Barbara in the Tantallon house they bought when he came to Congress in 1968, explains it simply: "Some people are addicted to alcohol, some to drugs and some to politics."
He didn't try for reelection in Missouri, he says, because "I've got some degree of pride. . . . I'm not sure that you should give your constituents more than one opportunity to tell you they don't want you." He lost his seniority in Congress along with the 1980 election, he points out. "Why would the people want to send me here without anything when they didn't want me with everything?"
Furthermore, he notes, the expertise he developed in Congress is in greater demand in Washington than in rural Missouri, and he couldn't make as much money if he went home. So he became a Washington attorney.
Burlison describes himself as a "trial lawyer" in his campaign literature. He says he has not taken part in a trial since he left Congress, but that he has two cases "in the pipeline." He still stalks congressional corridors--now as a lobbyist.
Burlison's major clients are the Missouri-headquartered McDonnell Douglas Corp., which, according to reports filed with the Senate and House of Representatives, paid him $35,000 last year to represent its interests when bills dealing with military weapons systems were being considered. Another Missouri company, Emerson Electric Co. of St. Louis, paid him $12,500, while Planning Research Corp., a computer firm in the District, paid him $10,000.
As a former high-ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on program and budget authorization of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Burlison reckons he knows "as much as anybody else on Capitol Hill about the intelligence community."
(Two other County Council candidates are registered lobbyists on Capitol Hill: A. James Golato is a lobbyist for H & R Block Inc., the tax preparation firm, for which he serves as public affairs director, and Thomas R. Hendershot lobbies on behalf of several energy and securities businesses, who are clients of his D.C. law firm.)
Burlison acknowledges that his knowledge of the county is limited. But he says his basic political skills will see him through, and that by September's Democratic primary he will be well-informed.
Amonett is still pondering a run for the county executive post. But Burlison isn't waiting to find out what the competition may be. He says he already has knocked on about 5,000 doors, including Amonett's and council member Ann Lombardi's; he is sending letters to local newspapers and has formed a campaign committee called Taxpayers For Burlison, composed of a few neighbors.
"I have spent more hours working . . . on this campaign than any other," he says. He has had to cut back on running--his passion--from 40 hours a week to about 20, and his sleep from eight hours to five or six.
Few county politicians know Bill Burlison. None has backed him.
"I wouldn't turn down the support if it was offered, but I don't expect any to be offered," he says. He always has been "independent" and "nobody ever asked me to run for office."
But back in Missouri, they still remember Bill Burlison and the saga of his final years in office has become part of a rich political lore. His district stretched south from the St. Louis suburbs, between the Mississippi River and the Ozark foothills to the fertile plains of the Missouri "boot heel," which juts south of Tennessee.
"He was a strong politician, a good campaigner, personable in his own way, and he'd get on the WATS line from Washington and just pick up the phone book and call up and say 'I'm Congressman Burlison, what can I do for you?' " recalls John Blue, former editor of the Southeast Missourian, Cape Girardeau's daily newspaper. "His folksy approach was very effective and it got him through the years."
The Missourian was softer on Burlison than other area papers. It called for his resignation only twice.
"I thought very highly of Bill as a person," Blue said, "but I spoke for the paper and not myself. We just did not feel that he was properly representing the people of the 10th District."
The first call for resignation came in 1978, after Burlison interceded in a dispute between a local post office and one of its employes over missing money. Burlison acknowledged that he contacted the postmaster general on the woman's behalf.
Missouri papers, including the Missourian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, reported that the employe, a woman, was dismissed, but later was placed in a more senior position in a St. Louis post office.
The woman called police to her St. Louis apartment early one morning in 1978 to break up a shoving and pushing match between Burlison and her estranged husband, according to newspaper reports. The husband had stormed into the apartment while she was preparing breakfast for Burlison and accused the congressman of having an affair with her, newspaper reports quoted Burlison as saying at the time. No charges were pressed against either Burlison or the estranged husband.
Burlison said later--and says now--that he had gone to the apartment on "constituent business" with his wife's knowledge and approval. "The incident itself had relatively little meaning, but very much was made of it by the media and by my detractors and by my opponents," Burlison said.
"I don't know whether you can take any stock in it or not," Blue said last week. "I think generally people did feel there was something there. The vote showed that--that and the fact of the conservative trend over the last election."
Soon after the incident involving the woman and her estranged husband, Burlison spoke at the dedication of a hospital wing in nearby Dexter, Mo., and joked that he'd had breakfast that morning with the wife of a reporter.
"That went over like a lead balloon," said Barney Miller, owner and managing editor of The Dexter Statesman-Messenger. Miller wrote a stinging editorial under the headline "Burlison Totally Unfit." He called the congressman "rude, crude," "repulsive," and an "old billy goat" with "the grace of a two-buckle overshoe."
For the sixth time, Miller estimates, The Statesman called for Burlison's resignation.
In the spring of 1980, Burlison sent letters to 15 doctors at a Sikeston, Mo., clinic, complaining of letters to editors written by their colleague, Edward Masters, a doctor and walnut tree grower, according to a local newspaper editorial and Masters. Masters had sent a stream of letters to each of the district's 49 newspapers complaining of Burlison. The Missourian alone published 17.
Burlison's letter to the doctors suggested Master's political activity should be reported to the Federal Elections Commission and his expenses to the Internal Revenue Service. Masters, who still keeps a file on Burlison in his clinic office, and several newspapers called this a "threat." The Missourian and the Enterprise-Courier in Charleston called for Burlison's resignation.
As Burlison's last election drew near, the beleaguered congressman sent $12 checks to hundreds of constituents--to pay, he explains, for any campaign work they might want to do for him. His opponents protested, nicknamed him "Twelve Dollar Bill" and printed $12 notes with his portrait on them.
Burlison says he will not distribute checks in his Prince George's campaign and adds that all of his political behavior in Missouri was legal. The local papers were "one-sided," he says. "They fought me and I fought back."
Lynn Hutson, owner of Hutson's Furniture in Cape Girardeau, says the newspapers were "dictatorial" and Burlison dared to challenge them. "I'm one of those old-fashioned boys," the 71-year-old Hutson said. "I like to see someone get off his a-- and work, and that's what he (Burlison) did 24 hours a day. I'm more conservative than he is . . . but he doesn't know when to quit working. The people of Maryland would do real well in electing him."
Burlison made only one mistake, Hutson said: "He got too close with the hierarchy there in Washington and got a little away from the farm district here."
On Capitol Hill, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who covered the Missouri delegation recalled, Burlison was known as an able, popular and colorful congressman. He had achieved senior status on important committees and for two years he was champion in a Capitol Hill charity marbles competition.
Michal Sue Prosser, a Cape Girardeau business education teacher who joined Burlison's first campaign and worked for him until his defeat, said he was "genuinely interested and friendly with people. He took care of his work and his constituents." But his political philosophy and troubles with the newspapers brought him down, she said. "He was not a liberal candidate as such, but he was a strong supporter of President Carter. He did carry that label. And he did have a personal problem with the media."
But what goes over well in Cape Girardeau and what goes over well in Prince George's County might well prove different. Prince George's voted overwhelmingly for Carter in 1980.
"I have been fired as a politician," Burlison says. "I think I'm an able politician; I enjoy that type of work. So I'm going to continue that type of work at least through one more election. . . . At the age of 50 I am not a burned-out, expired individual. I could never voluntarily retire."