With the news Tuessday that Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) is retiring in 2012, a true firebrand of the past 30 years is exiting the political stage — and he’s left some great career highlights.
Burton overcame humble beginnings and a very hard childhood to become a successful real estate broker, and then a politician. After serving on and off in the Indiana legislature starting in 1966, and losing races for Congress in the early 1970’s, he was finally elected to a very safe Republican seat in 1982.
Along the way, he made some unlikely friends — such as Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-IN), against whom Burton had lost in his first run for the House in 1970. In a 1997 profile of Burton, Jacobs recalled that Burton introduced him to fellow GOP freshmen in 1983, saying: “This is Andy Jacobs. I ran a dirty campaign against him in 1970 and he beat me and I deserved it.”
But Burton surely also made enemies — and at the top of that list was President Bill Clinton, a man he doggedly pursued for various scandals (and a conspiracy theory or two) in the 1990’s.
So let’s go back in time, and take a look at ten great moments in Dan Burton history.
Against South Africa Sanctions: “Acts Of Desperation Generally Hurt Innocent Bystanders, And This One Does It In Spades”
In the 1980’s, Burton was a consistent voice against Congressional efforts to apply wide-ranging economic sanctions on Apartheid-era South Africa. In 1986, he warned that sanctions would result in “a real bloodbath that will benefit the communists.”
He instead supported President Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement,” on the grounds that sanctions would only hurt innocent black South Africans. (Sanctions passed in 1986, over Reagan’s veto.) In 1988, Burton continued to speak against even greater sanctions proposals. The Associated Press reported:
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told the committee the bill will cost 2 million jobs for South African blacks by the year 2000 and added: “This bill doesn’t sanction apartheid. It sanctions America and South African blacks.
“This is not a policy, this is scorched earth,” Burton said. “I sympathize with the desperation, but acts of desperation generally hurt innocent bystanders, and this one does it in spades.”
Later in his career, Burton would push for ever stronger economic sanctions against communist Cuba. In 1996, President Clinton signed a law sponsored by Burton and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC), targeting foreign companies that do business with Cuba.
Vince Foster Was Murdered — Shooting A Melon Proves It
Burton’s true magnum opus was a floor speech he delivered on the evening of August 2, 1994. The hour-long speech addressed the death of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, which was ruled a suicide. But Burton alleged that the body had been moved to its location at Fort Marcy Park in northern Virginia, and that Foster may not have fired the gun at all. The implication was that Foster was murdered, which Burton further expressed by insisting there was a connection between Foster’s death and the Whitewater investigation of the Clintons’ business dealings in Arkansas.
Most notable was his own home forensic experiment to disprove the official finding that those in the area of the park would not have heard the sound of a gunshot, because of the combination of traffic and construction noises, and Foster’s own head muffling the sound.
“We, at my house, with a homicide detective, tried to re-create a head, and fired .384-inch barrel into that, to see if the sound could be heard from a hundred yards away. Even though there was an earth-mover moving around in the background, making all kinds of racket — and you could hear the bullet clearly.”
Burton’s prop used for the experiment was variously reported as a watermelon or a pumpkin, though other sources have since said it was really a cantaloupe.
“I Do Not Recant On Any Of It”
Later, Burton became head of the House Governmental Affairs committee, in charge of most investigations of Clinton’s campaign finances. However, he promised not to continue down the Vince Foster beat, and instead focus on oversight of the Clinton administration in a professional manner.
But that said, he wasn’t actually backing down from the Foster business. In a 1997 Washington Post profile:
“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.
If Burton Could Prove 10 Percent Of What He Believes…
“If I could prove 10 percent of what I believe happened, he’d [Clinton] be gone,” Burton declared in 1998. “This guy’s a scumbag. That’s why I’m after him.”
The Edited Transcripts: “Squealing Like A Bunch Of Pigs
In 1998, Burton’s committee released edited transcripts of prison tapes of former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, who had been imprisoned after he admitted to mail fraud and tax evasion at the Rose Law Firm.
Democrats, led by Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA), pounced on the edited transcripts, charging that key statements by Hubbell had been omitted, in order to give the appearance of the Clintons being involved, and keeping out Hubbell’s statements in the phone calls where he expressly said that they were not involved and he was not getting any hush money:
The Washington Post reported:
Last week the committee released these remarks from a Sept. 11, 1996, talk Hubbell had with his wife: “Editorials are all talking about how all this is designed to keep me and Susan [McDougal] quiet. We have to make sure that it’s our personal friends that are helping.”
In the actual conversation, Waxman said, those two quoted sentences were separated by five sentences that were left out. The excluded portions included the following comments by Hubbell: “[M]ost of the articles are presupposing that I, my silence is being bought. We know that’s not true. You know, we’re dead solid broke and getting broker.”
“In such a massive undertaking,” Burton said, “anyone could argue after the fact that this or that passage should have been included or excluded from the final product.” He also said he would not resign his chairmanship: “When you hear the other side squealing like a bunch of pigs, you know you’re getting at the truth.”
Burton did, however, accept the resignation of the staffer who had overseen the transcripts project: David Bossie, who has since gone on to fame as head of Citizens United, the activist group that won the eponymous Supreme Court case on corporate political spending.
The Soup That Got Away
In a 1997 Washington Post profile of Burton, a former Democratic congressman with whom he had become friends suggested that Burton goes to great lengths to avoid the HIV virus:
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.”
Burton At The House Barber: B.Y.O.S.
However, a 1998 profile in The Hill of House barber Joe Quanttrone, showed that Burton remained cautious about germs:
Like clockwork, Burton arrives for services every two weeks with his private duffel bag of tools — scissors, comb and electric razor — fully prepared to let his hair down and crack jokes.
Burton, who is known to be so concerned about AIDS that he won’t eat soup in a restaurant, didn’t say that’s why he brings his own barber tools, but Quanttrone doesn’t see anything untoward about it.
“It’s just normal,” Quanttrone explained of Burton’s ritual. “No reason. He’s just used to it. He likes to look neat. He’s a unique man.”
“My Intent Is Not To Talk About My Personal Life”
In September of 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal was heading towards the impeachment of President Clinton, Vanity Fair revealed that Burton himself had previously had an affair in 1983, in which he fathered a son out of wedlock. Burton stood firm in a town hall meeting, alleging that the Clinton administration had orchestrated the article in an effort to sabotage his investigation of them.
From the CNBC transcript:
“I’m under fire by the president and his friends because I’m getting close—I’m getting very close to some information that I think will be damning to the president, and he and Janet Reno know it. If the president’s watching, I hope he gets this. There is nothing that can be done that will deter me from getting to the bottom of our investigation and getting the facts out to the American people. We’re not going to back down a half an inch.
“My intent is not to talk about my personal life, because my family knows my personal life, and I’m not going to get into that because it’s nobody busi—nobody’s business but my own. I haven’t broken any of the laws, and I haven’t done anything that I think is illegal or unethical. And—but if I—if I have done something that—that I should own up to, then I will do that. But until that point comes, I’m going to keep my personal life to myself.
Supporting The “Birther Bill” — In Order To Stop Conspiracy Theories
Burton has been surprisingly mellow during the Obama administration, however. Sure, he would occasionally talk about ACORN, or some other right-wing bogeyman. But he was nowhere near the frontman for anti-administration vitriol that he was during the Clinton years.
But he did get in one hit: In 2009, he signed on as a sponsor of the bill by freshman Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), to require presidential candidates to file their birth certificates with the Federal Election Commission. However, in this case, Burton’s office said he was supporting it in order to discourage the Birther conspiracy theories about President Obama.
“It’s a good idea,” said Burton’s spokesman John Donnelly. “If candidates provided that information to the Federal Election Commission you wouldn’t have all this hullaballoo. You don’t want to needlessly expose presidents to crazy conspiracy theories.”
Burton’s House Defense Shield: Plexiglass
After Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) was shot at a district event by an alleged lone and deranged gunman in January 2011, many members of Congress understandably took some time to assess their security arrangements. For his part, Burton renewed a security push he has long had in mind: To seal the House floor from the galleries with plexiglass.
“The Architect of the Capitol shall enclose the visitors’ galleries of the House of Representatives with a transparent and substantial material,” his bill said, “and shall install equipment so that the proceedings on the floor of the House of Representatives will be clearly audible in the galleries.”
But since the Capitol building already has a full-time police force, plus many security measures in place before anyone could even get through the door with a weapon, the bill did not attract support.
In fact, Burton had been sponsoring similar legislation way back in 1983, with his old friend Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-IN).