Mike Royko: Controversy…and the Cubs

When Mike Royko died in 1997, Chicago mourned.  Granted, a few of the many people he confronted in his no-nonsense manner may have secretly celebrated, but his death was seen by many as the end of an era, when newspaper columnists spoke their minds and weren’t afraid to offend the sensibilities of their readers.  As we bemoan our current era of fake news and incredible reporting biases, right and left, as we plead for fact-based journalism and a return to some greater measure of civility and sanity, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean there’s no place in journalism for strong opinion—often fiercely strong opinion.  ”He wrote with a piercing wit and rugged honesty that reflected Chicago in all its two-fisted charm,” wrote Rick Kogan in “20 Years without the legendary Mike Royko.”  I know Royko would have come at this era of fake news with both fists swinging.  ”His daily column,” writes Kogan, “was a fixture in the city’s storied journalistic history, and his blunt observations about crooked politicians, mobsters, exasperating bureaucracy and the odd twists of contemporary life reverberated across the nation.”


Kogan’s recent tribute starts by recalling the short, staccato conversations he had with another storied columnist, New York’s Jimmy Breslin, whom we lost on March 19th this year.  When Royko lay dying from a brain aneurism, Breslin would call Kogan every day for an update. On April 29th, 1997, when Kogan told Breslin that Royko had died at 3:30 p.m., Breslin said, “Goddam it.  Well, Goddam it,” and hung up.

It would be impossible to write about Royko without mentioning controversies and his detractors, like in 1996 when a thousand protesters “gathered outside Tribune Tower demanding that Royko be fired for what they felt were insulting portrayals of Mexicans in his column,” or when the famed Chicago priest and writer Andrew Greely characterized Royko’s writing as “crudity mixed with resentment.”

Nearly all of Royko’s books were collections of his newspaper columns, yet his 1971 Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, which won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, shows that Royko’s sometimes careless prose could truly shine when he was freed from the constraints of his daily assignments.  Writing in the New Republic, Roy Fisher wrote that in Boss, “Daley emerges as a complex mixture of integrity and debasement, of wisdom and stupidity, of vision and blindness, of compassion and brutality.”  Daley’s wife, Eleanor “Sis” Daley, thought the book was “trash and hogwash,” and, Rick Kogan writes, “When asked about his wife’s review…Richard J. replied with that characteristic grin, ‘She’s entitled to her opinion.’”  David Starkey and I included an excerpt from Boss in our book Smokestacks and Skyscrapers: An Anthology of Chicago Writing.

Royko2dRoyko, the son of saloon keepers, was born in a Polish neighborhood on the Northwest Side of Chicago in 1932.  He grew up among drinkers and fighters and, not surprisingly, some of his best writing is set in the city’s bars.  After a stint in the Air Force, Royko became columnist for the Chicago Daily News from 1959 until the paper closed in 1978.  He wrote for the Sun Times from 1978 to 1984, and finally, in a move that coincided with national syndication, for the Tribune from 1984 to his death.  Royko, whose higher education consisted of two years at Wright Community College, was always skeptical of intellectuals, seeing himself as a champion of the common man and a debunker of frauds.  His most famous alter ego was the tough-talking, cynical Slats Grobnik.

Still, he was a life-long Cubs fan.  He often ridiculed the “curse of the Billy Goat” excuse for the team’s failures and blamed owner P.K. Wrigley himself.  In fact, the Cubs were the subject of his very last column (read it Here), March 21, 1997, where he writes of Wrigley running, “…the worst franchise in baseball. And a big part of that can be blamed on racism.  If not Wrigley’s, then that of the stiffs he himself hired to run his baseball operations.”

Rick Kogan ends his tribute to Royko recalling his wife Judy’s reflections on Royko and the Cubs.

“‘The Cubs winning the World Series? There really are no words to describe what Mike would have thought, would have felt,’ says Judy. ‘He would have … I don’t have the words.’

“She can remember vividly the night when the Cubs clinched the 1984 division title. She and Mike watched the game at the Billy Goat Tavern. It was jammed, and after the victory, people, strangers mostly, approached Mike to exchange high-fives. Quietly, gently, he grabbed Judy by the hand and led her from the bar, up the stairs and out onto Hubbard Street. She thought they were headed home. Instead he took her in his arms and they started to dance.

“‘We were there, alone in the middle of the street, just twirling in that strange, otherworldly light,’ she says. ‘We were so happy.’”

“The following morning,” Kogan concludes, “he was back at the paper writing his column because that’s what he did.”

 Go to a list of Chicago Writers, and to the Smokestacks and Skyscrapers page, where you can also BUY the book.

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Reflections on a Political Loss

It has taken me a while for me to write anything at all, but on the afternoon of April 10th I wrote this to a few colleagues who had been supporting Rick Guzman’s run for Aurora mayor:

“By now you know that Rick Guzman lost his race for Aurora mayor by a narrow, narrow margin. We were away this weekend visiting family when we got a text Friday saying that he, not wanting to appear obstructionist or to stand in the way of the transition, was going to concede. The numbers are not all in yet (!), but it appears he lost by about 170 votes on the high end, and as few as 101 votes on the low. He wanted to get within 76 votes before going through the expensive and uncertain process of a recount, but figures he will fall about 25 votes shy of that.

NegatvCampgns“Of course we are devastated. This is an age where actual accomplishments don’t often mean much—he has had far more than his opponent—and where fake news holds terrible sway. We were the victim of such news when a super pac in Evergreen Park just made up a story, totally lies, and released it on a fake news website. My wife is friends with a member of a prominent Aurora political family and watched as this story was circulated by them on social media the weekend before the election. We had also heard others repeat this fabrication for about a week.

“In an election this close many of us who volunteered can’t help but have thoughts like, if I had only Contributed 100 more dollars, or Made 100 more calls, or Knocked on 100 more doors, maybe that would have made the difference. The only one who I hope does not harbor such thoughts is Rick himself, who sacrificed many times more than anyone else. It’s possible he knocked on more doors himself than all of the rest of us combined.

“I will write more fully on the loss in the near future and post it to my website after we’ve had time to digest it all and to try to recover. For now we’re just discouraged—at least I am, who has never been much a fan of politics in the first place.

“During the campaign people often said to me, You must be very proud. I always took this as a strange statement because I was already as proud of Rick as I could be and winning or losing wasn’t going to have much of an impact on that one way or the other. His accomplishments were already impressive, but my pride has always emanated from something greater: my knowledge of how very deep his desire was to be a good man and to make a difference. I told him this soon after election night, and he replied, ‘Thanks, Dad. I am who I am because of you.’ May we all be as lucky to get those kinds of replies from our children. At Bryan’s memorial service, where so many spoke, especially all his brothers, Hal Wilde came up afterwards, tears in his eyes, and said to me, ‘I hope you know you’re the luckiest man in the room.’ I speak of my own feelings at this moment—knowing that Rick’s and the family’s feelings are more important now—only to say I am constantly aware of my immense luck in having the family I do. Maybe in a while, the story will turn from deep disappointment in the loss and in politics in general to more of a story where a political unknown, dead last in the beginning and given no chance at all, ran a race against three political veterans with decades of name recognition behind them, plus five write-in candidates, to come this close to winning. I hope so. Thanks for your interest and support.”

It’s hard to sort out the many regrets you have at times like these, but in my note I pointed to two, big political ones: the negativity and the fake news.  And I was sorry that our own campaign felt it also had to mention negative things.  As someone said to me, “But what we mentioned was ALL true!”  I suppose.  But I met several supporters of Rick’s opponent, Richard Irvin, whose resolve to vote for their man was stiffened by that negativity.  The links below will take you to a Tribune article by Steve Lord on both campaigns’ negative turns, as well as a long note from Rick himself commenting on it.  Of course, the negativity of this campaign pales when put in the context of the history of negative campaigns in American politics.  Why do we put up with it?  That’s a subject for a later post.  My aversion to it marks me, I suppose, as politically naive, but still….

 Read Steve Lord’s news story, which begins: “The mayoral race in Aurora that has been lauded for its positivity took a negative turn this week.”

 Read Rick Guzman’s comment on the last days of the campaign.  His comments seem supported by what Lord reports in his story above.

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Beware the “Push Poll”

The November 2016 elections didn’t exactly build our confidence in polling and pollsters, and most vowed a period of “soul searching” after a series of fairly spectacular inaccuracies.  So we’re already wary of polls.  Hopefully the soul searching will yield something, but there’s a kind of poll that we should be suspicious of forever: the so-called push poll, a staple of dirty political trickery.

PoynterRick Guzman—in his run for mayor of Aurora, IL—has been a victim of push polls both in the primary and, now, general election.  It goes like this, a fake pollster calls up and asks questions intended to plant serious questions in the voter’s mind.  “What would you think of Rick Guzman if you heard he had mismanaged a non-profit?”  In this world of fake news, this counts 100% as a fake question, and it gets away with slander without technically being slander.  The questions didn’t say that Guzman mismanaged a non-profit, but asks only what the voter would think of him IF he mismanaged a non-profit.  That giant IF, however, often slides by the listener, especially because they think this might be a real poll.

There’s a similar question going around now asking what a voter would think of Guzman IF they found out he had paid taxes late.

No such lateness.  And about the non-profit mismanagement?  The reality is the just opposite.  In 2016, after a year-long research and vetting process, Guzman’s non-profit, Emmanuel House, was named one of the “Top 100 Most Innovative” social change organizations in the world.

Vicki Krueger, writing for the well-respected Poynter Institute, says this about push polls:

“It happens  every election cycle. You’ll get a call that sounds like a political poll but is really a campaign tactic. Some calls are ‘push polls,’ political telemarketing that attempts to create negative views of candidates or issues. Others are legitimate message-testing surveys, used by campaigns to see which types of messages will be most successful.

“Here’s how you can tell the difference.

Push polls
*  Often ask only one or very few questions, all about a single candidate or a single issue.
*  Usually ask questions that are strongly negative (or sometimes uniformly positive) describing the candidate or the issue.
*  May not name the organization conducting the calls, or sometimes use a phony name.
*  Do not ask for demographic information.
*  Can give evasive answers when you ask for information about the survey.
*  Usually call very large numbers of people, sometimes many thousands.
*  Do not use a random sample.
*  Rarely, if ever, report results.

Message testing
*  Usually based on a random sample of voters.
*  The number of calls is within the range of legitimate surveys, typically between 400 and 1,500 interviews.
*  Usually contains more than a few questions, including demographic data.
*  Will often share results on request.”

So be alert to negativity and evasiveness.  Ask the questions the Push Poll criteria above imply.  What organization is calling?  Where can I see the results?  Get technical, even: What’s your sample size, and is it randomized?—which could scare off even the most committed fake pollster, though most are hired guns and not committed at all.

The Poynter Institute, established in 1975, has this tagline: “A Global Leader in Journalism. Strengthening Democracy.”  As much as Poynter really has done for journalism and democracy, all us ordinary citizens must finally be the ones who, on behalf of democracy, step up and reject tactics that spread insinuations and falsehoods.  These ultimately weaken the fabric of civil, respectful discourse.  Guzman for Aurora is proud it’s never stooped to such tactics.

 Go to the Lead Post for the Guzman for Aurora campaign on this site.

 Go to the Guzman for Aurora website.

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