Always Having to Say He's Sorry
By BOB HERBERT
If there were a trapdoor that was somehow rigged to open beneath the U.S. senators we really don't need, Conrad Burns of Montana would surely fall right through it.
Mr. Burns is a racially insensitive Republican whose re-election bid this year has been jeopardized by his dealings with the G.O.P. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Among other things, he's admitted to bilking American Indians out of millions of dollars, and he's said to be singing louder than the fat lady to federal investigators.
Mr. Burns is reported to have received more money in the form of campaign contributions from Mr. Abramoff and his favor-strewing friends than any other member of Congress. This has delighted his political opponents, who have tried to show that Mr. Burns and Mr. Abramoff were as close as a pair of prisoners sharing a single set of handcuffs.
When The Times asked whether he or members of his staff might get caught up in the federal investigation, Mr. Burns said he didn't know. As he put it, "You can't say yes and you can't say no."
The Abramoff scandal is just the latest issue to raise questions about Senator Burns's fitness to hold high public office. You've heard of accidents waiting to happen? He's an accident that happens again and again and again.
Back in 1994, while campaigning for a second term, Senator Burns dropped by a local newspaper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and told an editor an anecdote about one of his constituents, a rancher who wanted to know what life was like in Washington.
Mr. Burns said the rancher asked him, "Conrad, how can you live back there with all those niggers?"
Senator Burns said he told the rancher it was "a hell of a challenge."
The anecdote was published, and Senator Burns apologized. When he was asked why he hadn't expressed any disapproval when the rancher used the word nigger, the senator said: "I don't know. I never gave it much thought."
Maybe he didn't express any disapproval because he didn't particularly disapprove. On another occasion Senator Burns had to apologize after giving a speech in Billings about America's dependence on foreign sources of oil. In the speech, he referred to Arabs as "ragheads."
"I regret the use of such an inappropriate term," he said. "I hope I did not overshadow the serious substance of my remarks."
Mr. Burns's apologies have always been undermined by the serial nature of his offensive remarks. Last fall he upset a pair of female flight attendants after one of them, a mother with two children, asked him about outsourcing and the economy. She wondered what she would do if she lost her job. The senator reportedly replied that she could stay home and take care of her children.
A third flight attendant, after hearing the story, wrote an angry letter to Mr. Burns, saying, "Before you sit in judgment and make such ignorant statements, you really should stop and remember that we don't all live in a 'Leave It to Beaver' world."
It has always been this way with Conrad Burns. Back in 1991, immediately after a civil rights bill had been passed, he invited a group of lobbyists, some of them white and some of them black, to accompany him to an auction.
When asked what was being auctioned, he replied, "Slaves."
The Washington Post quoted one of the lobbyists as saying: "We were floored. We couldn't believe it." Senator Burns later said he was talking about a charitable auction in which the services of individuals are sold.
When you consider that clowns like Conrad Burns can inhabit some of the highest offices in the land, it's no longer such a mystery why the United States of America seems to be barreling down the wrong track at truly hair-raising speeds.
As we've found with the war in Iraq and so many other important issues, leadership matters. And serious leaders in the U.S. have been in dangerously short supply.
In response to questions about the Abramoff scandal, Mr. Burns has denied that he's done anything wrong. And he dismisses concerns about the amount of money he received. "What's the difference between one dollar and one thousand?" he said. "It's all dollars. Just like you rob a bank down here. If you get a thousand you go to jail, and if you get a million you go to jail."