Politics in Illinois is sad business, indeed the stuff of late night jokes. One bad governor after another and then came the Blagojevich impeachment in January. Now Blago is going to get a book deal. It makes you wonder why he signed for only six figures. But John Kass, in his often humorous and rightly cynical Chicago Tribune column, suggests the former governor could shake down a lot of folks to keep quiet about their connections to his "pay-to-play" political career. The one thing I personally feel fairly sure about is that President Obama never got hooked up with this scandalous business. (I hope this belief is proven true or the whole nation will face a crisis that we can ill afford right now. Watch the Blago story for unfolding dramatics.)
But what about Senator Roland Burris? This is the man the ex-governor appointed to take the seat previously held by Barrack Obama. Burris was tainted from the beginning but most thought that he was clean. Now he tells us a lot of information we did not have during his appointment process. Even Senator Richard Durbin has called for Burris to resign. But Roland Burris just keeps on ticking, like the old Timex watch commercials tell us their watches do. I often wonder why?
You must understand that Roland Burris will serve two years and not be re-elected. There is no way he stays in the Senate. So why does this two-year term matter to him that much? One might suggest it is the pension but maybe not. It is clear that he cannot accomplish much of anything in such a short time. He has labored to even hire a staff in D.C. and get an office up and running. And no one in his home state sees him as all that important or effective. He is simply holding a seat and voting with the president and his Democratic peers. That's about it.
So why does Burris do this at 72 years of age? Thursday's edition of the Daily Herald gave me the answer I was seeking. It is just as plain as a noon day in an Arizona dessert. Burris is doing this for legacy. Legacy, for those who do not remember their dictionary well, refers to anything "handed down, as to one's ancestors." I never understood the power of this emotion and personal force until I turned 60 recently. It is your tendency, if you are honest, to think about your friends, family and those who knew you as you get older and face your own mortality. How will they think about you when you are gone? What did you leave to them to pass on to others? How will you be really be remembered? I think this drive is far more powerful in some people than in others. In the case of Roland Burris it is a major reason that he wants to hang on to this seat in spite of all the calls for his resignation. He is deeply committed to preserving his legacy. But how did I come to this conclusion?
Oak Wood Cemetery is a rather famous spot in Chicago. Jesse Owens is buried there. So is the physicist Enrico Fermi, a pioneer in nuclear and quantum physics who won the Nobel Prize in 1938. The mortal remains of William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, a Baptist school in its origins, are also there. William "Big Bill" Thompson, a mayor of huge fame before the Daley family, is at rest there. So is "Big Jim" Colosimo, who brought a kid named Capone to Chicago. Even Clarence Darrow was cremated at Oak Woods. And there is a mass grave there, near a statue of Abraham Lincoln, where the remains of 4,275 Confederate soldiers are buried. (These men died in Northern prisons.) Across Memorial Drive in the cemetery is the tomb of the late Mayor Harold Washington. For the sports fan there is the first great Cub, Cap Anson, and Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner. Landis is the man who banned "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, and seven other Sox stars, after the 1919 White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. One of my favorites, the "Father of Gospel" music Tommy Dorsey, is also buried in Oak Woods.
So Oak Woods is a place many go who like to think about the history of this area and this great state. And only sixteen blocks straight north of Oak Woods is President Barack Obama's home if you want to view a piece of living history and legacy.
But what has all this to do with Roland Burris? A lot. You see Roland Burris has a marker already in place at Oak Woods that is one of the biggest and most impressive in the whole cemetery. When you see the marker and read what is on this tomb stone, and what will yet be put on this marker, you can understand the thinking of our besieged junior senator. I have always been inclined to ask the psychological question: "Why do some people act the way they do, especially when so many people (a majority in this case) think they are wrong?" Why would Burris hang on to a seat when he is an unpopular and ineffective lame duck? Why should he care so much? The answer is not in the stars but on the stone. This man is living to make sure that his legacy is in keeping with his ego. He is making sure that he is remembered as a "trail blazer," a true African-American leader for the ages.
When politicians live this way I am not that surprised. What once surprised me, and now doesn't even elicit as much as a small notice, is when I see "important" Christian leaders who live and think the same way. I admit freely that legacy has a unique tug on you as you age. But the apostle Paul plainly addressed this in his letters. And the disciple who said of Jesus, "He must increase but I must decrease" left for us a far better way of thinking about legacy and our own future. I still think George Whitefield got it about right when he was asked about his legacy and burial. He said, "May the name of George Whitefield perish. May the name of Christ live forever!" I just wish I saw a little more of this in my own generation of leaders the older I get. I am not cynical about this but I am a little wiser, I hope, as I look around. The one thing I must deal with is the only thing I can deal with: me!