Thursday, October 8, 2009

J. Herbert Burke: only there for the articles

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By 1978, J. Herbert Burke had firmly established himself as the representative from Florida's 10th District. He had won six elections, was set to run for a seventh term, and, though not one of the more well-known members of Congress, had still earned a reputation as a respectable congressman. That would literally change overnight, however, with an incident in Burke's home state and a questionable explanation for it.

Burke was a native of Chicago, born in the city in 1913 and attending Central YMCA College there as well as nearby Northwestern University. In 1940, he graduated from Kent College of Law and was admitted to the bar. Burke's entry into the legal profession was soon delayed by World War II, and he served with the U.S. Army in Europe between 1942 and 1945. He was discharged as a captain, having picked up the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, European Theater Medal, and American Theater Ribbon along the way. Upon his return to the United States, Burke began practicing law in Chicago and stayed there until 1949.

In that year, Burke decided to move to Hollywood, Florida. Three years later, he was elected as a Republican to be a Broward County commissioner. He held the position until 1967, and continued to build his political resume in other ways, including serving as a Republican state committeeman from 1954 to 1958. Burke's first stab at a national office came in January of 1955, when he ran for an opening in the House of Representatives created by the death of Democratic Representative Dwight Rogers. In the late stages of that campaign, Burke personally visited President Dwight D. Eisenhower and declared that he could "get more done under President Eisenhower than a Democrat can get."

Burke lost the race to Paul Rogers, another attorney and the late congressman's son. Eisenhower was apparently impressed with Burke, however, as he appointed him to the Southeastern Advisory Board of Small Business in 1956. That same year, Burke became the assistant campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate William A. Washburne, Jr. Burke's law practice and commissioner's duties likely kept him busy, as he disappeared from the state and national radar for the next decade. When a new congressional district was allotted to Florida in 1966, though, Burke threw his hat into the ring and this time was successful in his bid for the House.

Burke's first serious challenge came only two years later, when the 10th District was redrawn. As a result, a more conservative portion of northern Broward County was excised and the more liberal areas of northern Dade County attached. Burke complained that the move amounted to gerrymandering, but was nonetheless able to eke out a victory over Democratic state representative Elton Gissendanner. In September of 1967, less than a year into his first term, the ultraconservative group Americans for Constitutional Action rated Burke (and 23 other congressmen) as 100 percent in alignment with their ideals.

Burke's most notable activities in Congress were his trips to numerous foreign countries as part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In February of 1969, he and Democratic Representative Charles Diggs of Michigan visited Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu at his official residence in Nigeria to discuss the civil war in that country. Noam Chomsky later criticized him for his reaction to congressional testimony from James Dunn, who had interviewed refugees from East Timor about atrocities committed in that country after Indonesia invaded in December of 1975. A ranking minority member on the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Burke wrote, "I have my own suspicions regarding what might be behind the testimony, and I agree with you that it is in all our best interests to bury the Timor issue quickly and completely."

Burke's most notable action regarding foreign affairs was his recommendation that Ukraine and Byelorussia be expelled from the United Nations. He argued that despite the strong sense of nationalism in the regions, they were still a part of the Soviet Union and serving to give that country an extra two votes in the UN. Not sparing any words, Burke said the two regions "have been transformed into one constituent part of one vast slave state created from the blood of countless millions of murdered people who believe in their independence and who lost their lives because of that basic belief that we take for granted." In July of 1974, he criticized news coverage of the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had recently kidnapped Patty Hearst, of creating sympathy for the organization.

Burke also opposed welfare reform, arguing it would lead to an increased allocation of tax money and "socialism." When Congress voted to seat Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at the cost of a fine, Burke said, "I couldn't conscientiously vote to seat him. Things haven't changed from two years ago. But I am glad the thing is disposed of." Despite these opinions, another conservative group, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, ranked him only "moderately conservative" in October of 1977. One possible reflection of this opinion is Burke's about-face regarding President Richard Nixon. Though he was one of 36 House members urging Nixon to declare his intentions to run for President in January of 1968, Burke opposed granting immunity to Nixon after he resigned in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

While Burke's activities sometimes earned him mention or even headlines in the news, he was a fairly low-key individual. That changed in the early morning hours of May 27, 1978 when police were called to the Centerfold Bar, a night club in Dania, Florida that included the attractions of naked go-go dancers. According to a police report, Burke was there, being "belligerent and verbally abusive," and "yelling, shouting, disrupting business." He was arrested on charges of disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest, without violence, by the two officers.

Burke was released after being briefly jailed, and almost immediately threatened to sue the Dania Police Department for wrongful arrest. He said that he was only at the club because he'd followed two men there after overhearing them discussing a narcotics deal. Burke said he never took in the dancers, but instead stayed outside to witness what looked like a drug exchange. After finding that his car wouldn't start, he told the bar manager, a man named Joseph Dangles, to call the police. He claimed to be caught completely off-guard when the cops put the cuffs on him instead.

Aside from his word, the only thing backing up Burke's story was the fact that he was a member of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control at the time. Aligning more with the drunk and disorderly version was a rambling rant Burke wrote on the wall of his jail cell: "My name is J.H. Burke. The time is 12:20 a.m. I have not been charged. I want to make a charge against the (illegible) by the Dania police. I was molested by the Dania police without right of counsel with charges being made against me. I was abused, molested, abused and prevented from calling a lawyer, a friend or making a complaint. J. Herbert Burke."

Burke was indicted by a grand jury in June, and another charge was added to the two he'd been arrested on: influencing a witness. This charge alleged that Burke had tried, without intimidation or bribery, to get Dangles to falsely testify about the incident. The indictment concluded, perhaps a little melodramatically, that Burke had provided an "evil example" and offended "the peace and dignity of the state of Florida." Three months later, Burke pleaded guilty to disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence, and no contest to the witness tampering charge. He was fined $177.50 and put on probation for three months.

The plea took place with only about a month to go before Election Day. The Democratic runoff chose Ed Stack, a Broward County sheriff and former Republican who had unsuccessfully challenged Burke for the party's nomination for the House in 1966 and 1968, over state representative John Adams, who had tipped off the press to Burke's arrest. Both Stack and Burke said they did not think the incident at the Centerfold Bar would significantly affect the contest, but it was later blamed for the election result that turned Burke out of office. "I never felt what I did was a sinful thing," he said. "I didn't rob anyone. No one wanted to face my side and when I faced the whole thing and pleaded guilty, I felt if one incident can wipe out 26 years of public service, well..."

Burke did not return to political life, and split his time between homes in Falls Church, Virginia and Fern Park, Florida. The most prevalent result of the scandal was that it inspired Carl Hiaasen, a resident of Burke's district, to write a novel entitled Strip Tease. The story follows a congressman who becomes obsessed with a stripper, and was later made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Demi Moore. In June of 1993, Burke died of a heart attack at a hospital in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Candidates For Congress Busy With Campaign" in the Ocala Star-Banner on Jan. 9 1955, "Washburne Names Aide In Governor Campaign" in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 20 1956, "Right Wing Rates Congressmen" in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 6 1967, "36 In House Urge Nixon To Declare" in the New York Times on Jan. 12 1968, "Two New Faces Added To Florida's Delegation" in the St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 7 1968, "Gibbons Decries 'Fee'" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 4 1969, "Florida's 14 Congressmen Voted, Fought...And Sat" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 2 1972, "Florida's Congressmen Got Around" in the St. Petersburg Times on Apr. 26 1972, "S.L.A. Sympathy Charged" in the New York Times on Jul. 24 1974, "Leaders Divided On Nixon Immunity" in The Ledger on Aug. 8 1974, "Congressional Rating Game Is Underway" in The Ledger on Oct. 24 1977, "Florida Congressman Arrested At Nightclub Featuring Nude Dancers" in the St. Petersburg Times on May 28 1978, "Burke Says He Will File False Arrest Suit Against Police" in the Boca Raton News on May 29 1978, "Burke Still Tough Foe Despite Arrest" in The Ledger on May 29 1978, "Attorney To Represent Rep. Burke" in the Ocala Star-Banner on Jul. 21 1978, "Burke Will Skip Hearings" in the Boca Raton News on Jul. 18 1978, "Burke Says Plea Won't Hurt Bid" in the Boca Raton News on Sept. 27 1978, "Congressional Police Blotter" in The Village Voice on Oct. 30 1978, "U.S. House: Democrats Now Have 12-3 Margin" in the St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 9 1978, "J. Herbert Burke Dies; Was Florida Congressman" in the Washington Post on Jun. 18 1993, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship by Lawrence M. Mead, Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from the New York Times

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Burke in 1977 was asked by a friend to help out a gas station attendant who was due to report to the airforce on an extended enlistment program .This friend knew of this attendant from having his green MG midget serviced.Burke granted the attendant an honorable discharge with out ever serving one day in the airforce.great guy