Business as Usual

Anyone as fallible as a politician will fail the exacting standards of an editorial page. Jim Edgar has been amply praised by the Tribune during his term as governor. He’s also been lectured and ridiculed, and it’s this language we wish to repeat.

Just this month the Tribune chastised the governor for his refusal to commit state funds to help build Chicago’s trolley system. “Instead he hems about limited funds and haws about need to make choices. . . . His poor-mouthing about the state’s fiscal condition inadvertently calls attention to what ought to be the central issue in the gubernatorial race, and one which he has skirted so far. . . . A governor is supposed to lead, not shrug.”

In June the Tribune noted that Chicago’s murder rate was rising, while Edgar “has dropped his bid to get a state ban on several kinds of assault weapons.” The paper commented, “They are vicious weapons with no legitimate sporting purpose, and prohibiting them would send a powerful message that our lawmakers understand the need to get rid of instruments meant for human destruction. Instead, we are getting more of the same.”

Last autumn a funding crisis came within a hair of closing Chicago’s schools. The Tribune was furious with Edgar for doing so little to keep them open. “The governor’s scope of the city doesn’t extend much beyond the State of Illinois Center in the Loop and the margins of his lakefront bicycling routes,” one editorial sneered. “It doesn’t extend to the 600 schools where sit nearly a quarter of Illinois’ public schoolchildren.” Another editorial complained that Edgar and legislators “twiddled their thumbs,” and a third said that the response of the governor and legislative leaders to the school crisis “has been chicken-hearted and shameful.”

The Tribune also assailed Edgar for his reluctance to allow casino gambling in Chicago. In the Tribune’s view, the governor’s position (since tempered, though the city’s no closer to casinos as a result) was not just priggish but hypocritical. An editorial last November stated, “And yet the stand-patters mutter, as they stash their cash, that sinful Chicago isn’t ready for legalized gambling. They hide behind the doubts of Gov. Jim Edgar, whose friends have gambling interests elsewhere.”

Last Sunday the Tribune relented long enough to endorse Edgar for reelection. None of the paper’s qualms had been allayed. “If Edgar thinks he can glide along for another four years, then the state is headed for more trouble,” said the endorsement. “It’s time for him to show some determination. In the last year, the governor has demanded a ban on semiautomatic weapons, but declined to fight for it. He sought riverboat casinos in Chicago, but declined to fight for them. He wanted at least a dozen charter schools, but declined to fight for them.

“Edgar needs to acknowledge the very real problems that confront the state. Ask him about schools and he falls into the familiar patter about poor management in Chicago. But the watch list of financially troubled school districts has mushroomed to 145. That’s one of every six in the state.”

Why, then, did the Tribune pass over the Democrat, Dawn Clark Netsch? Because she seems unwilling to make the structural changes in Chicago’s school system that Republicans demand, said the endorsement, and therefore could never push her tax package through the General Assembly. Because she seems an unlikely consensus builder. Because “on the issues most critical to business–repeal of the Structural Work Act, product liability and tort reform–Netsch would be an obstructionist.”

The Tribune found it necessary to assert which candidate would be more sympathetic to business. It didn’t bother with the question of which would be more sympathetic to Chicago, even though it was the governor’s indifference to this city that the Tribune had been lambasting so frequently in months gone by. In the crunch that indifference doesn’t matter to the Tribune–in its primary endorsement of Edgar last March, the word “Chicago” never appeared. Du Page County readers probably didn’t notice.

By contrast, the Sun-Times, which presents itself as Chicago’s paper for Chicagoans, offered this:

“Netsch is a friend of Chicago. . . . We know what to expect from Netsch: She understands the needs of Chicago. Not so, Edgar. A Downstate Republican, Edgar consistently treats the state’s most important city like an albatross.”

At the end of any significant election it’s normal for a gaggle of pundits, media critics, social scientists, and sulking losers to denounce the media for their failure to examine the issues. We’re tempted to abandon this chorus and save our breath. The media will never change, because the media have no faith in the power of issues to matter once examined. Why should the Tribune expect the issues to influence anybody else when they don’t even influence the Tribune?

People choose among candidates for existential reasons. They choose to make a statement about themselves, and the choice is much more visceral than contemplative. A newspaper is no different. We did the research for this column before the Tribune’s endorsement appeared, but we took for granted what it would be. Afterward we asked a spokesman for the paper when the Tribune last endorsed a Democrat for governor, and he said certainly not in his lifetime and probably never. Against the Tribune’s concern for its own institutional integrity, Jim Edgar’s indifference to Chicago is small potatoes.

An even better example of what a newspaper can ignore when it wants to is Monday’s endorsement of Republican Jim Ryan, the Du Page County state’s attorney, for attorney general. The Tribune’s own Eric Zorn had devoted a month’s worth of columns last winter to dissecting a “massive miscarriage of justice”–the triumphant prosecution by Ryan’s office of Rolando Cruz for the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico. After Zorn was done writing, the Illinois Supreme Court threw out the conviction.

The Tribune said it was endorsing Ryan because he “runs a sound office and is widely admired by his assistant prosecutors.” Cruz didn’t come up.

News Bites

From our notebook:

When the Arts Club was consigned to the dustbin of history last week by the Landmarks Commission, the powerful oratory that allowed the commission members to vote the way they already intended to was provided by vice chairman Joseph Gonzales. An architect himself, Gonzales invoked 12 local architects he said had deemed the space unworthy. He named no one on his list, but he made it clear they should be taken more seriously than all the far-flung luminaries who were petitioning Chicago to protect Mies van der Rohe’s staircase and interior as a Chicago landmark.

Commission member Albert Friedman had already dismissed these out-of-towners as “carpetbaggers.”

Gonzalez and Friedman’s display of civic xenophobia was dwarfed by Raymond Coffey’s column in the Sun-Times two days later. If Mies van der Rohe was such an “aesthetic genius,” Coffey wanted to know, why’d he put his staircase in such an ugly building? And why’d the Arts Club wait so long before rounding up “a chorus of international aesthetes” to make an argument for preservation “so snobbily pretentious as to constitute parody.”

Case in point: “the New York fathead who compared the club interior to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.” Coffey wondered, “Where do they find these guys? Have any of them ever actually been to Chicago or the Arts Club?”

(Coffey could have found one of those guys by walking a few steps. Among the witnesses at the hearing who spoke for preservation was Richard Cahan, a Sun-Times editor.)

Coffey went on to lament the “uppity bashing of Chicago.” Here he put his finger on one of the great curses of our time. Uppities wander the globe like locusts, plaguing civic fathers who know best. But although they cannot be eradicated, they can be held in check. Just last month Marion Barry was renominated for mayor of Washington, D.C., to teach the uppities there a lesson. Now Coffey’s helped run them out of Chicago.

A columnist we particularly admire is William Pfaff, and his column in last Sunday’s Tribune shows why. Pfaff’s subject is shopworn, the decline of British monarchy. If enough hadn’t been written on the subject over the last ten years it was certainly beaten to death in the past month, since new books appeared revealing Charles and Diana’s adulterous secrets and the future king’s ditzy need to barter his private life for the public’s pity.

Yet Pfaff makes all this fresh by taking the monarchy seriously, comfortably discussing what he called “the sacral function of the monarch,” a function once expressed by “the divine right of kings” and today by the monarch’s role as “defender of the faith.” In Pfaff’s hands the royals’ capers aren’t just silly; they’re historic and perhaps tragic, which is no doubt how many Britons find them.

The sexual high jinks of the rich and regal are easy pickings for any condescending writer who can huff and puff. Placing those high jinks in the context of a thousand-year-old civilization that once gave the crown the authority to act in the name of God–this is something else. Few journalists could write that story. Few wouldn’t be embarrassed to try.

When we saw the picture of Dan Rostenkowski in Monday’s Sun-Times we felt terrible for him. It was with an article on the congressional race in the Fifth District. The caption said, “Rep. Dan Rostenkowski waves from in front of his Northwest Side home Sunday.”

We recognized the sweater. It was the same sweater Rosty wore when the same Sun-Times photographer took his picture in front of the same house the morning after he’d sailed to victory in the Democratic primary.

We don’t care what anybody says. No man’s a gluttonous, trough-lapping, graft-strewing beltway spoilsmonger–if he has only one sweater.

We called the Sun-Times. They said there’d been a mistake. The picture wasn’t actually taken Sunday. It was taken last March. For that matter, the other picture–“of GOP challenger Michael P. Flanagan at his campaign headquarters Sunday”–wasn’t taken Sunday either. But this time the Sun-Times was only off by a week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Lisa Datum.