Columnist with Conviction

Diffidence can be such an infuriating virtue. When the Sun-Times’s new occasional columnist, William Rentschler, decided to analyze the Mel Reynolds trial as an “ultra-high-profile prosecution” by an ambitious state’s attorney coveting higher office, he modestly asked someone other than himself to provide the infamous precedent.

“Such a strategy,” wrote Rentschler on August 9, “lifted former U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson, [Jack] O’Malley’s mentor and role model, from relative obscurity to four terms as governor, chiefly as a result of his sensational, successful, publicity-bathed prosecution of the late Otto Kerner, a previously unsullied Democratic governor and federal appellate judge. After the verdict, Kerner ruefully said, “I was convicted by witnesses who were induced to lie.”‘

Rentschler remembers Kerner as the victim of an unscrupulous prosecutor. What Rentschler did not write is that he remembers himself the same way. Jim Thompson was northern Illinois’ U.S. attorney in 1973, when a federal indictment accused Rentschler of swindling small investors in a Malaysian timber operation. In late 1975–after Thompson had resigned to run for governor–Rentschler was convicted in federal court on 17 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, and bank fraud. His verdict was less of a thunderclap than Kerner’s, but it was the day’s top story.

Rentschler, who’d been Richard Nixon’s Illinois campaign chairman in 1968 and campaigned for his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate two years later, called himself Thompson’s “showcase Republican.” Insisting that business associates ran the timber venture into the ground while he was running for office, and that no one took more of a financial battering than himself, Rentschler declared, “I really think we’ve seen a little bit of Hitler in this part of America. I think Thompson and his handpicked successor [Sam Skinner] and the people they’ve trained are political assassins.”

Rentschler was given 90 days in a work-release program. Five months later he pleaded guilty in federal court to bank fraud and was sentenced to a year in prison. The life he’s fashioned for himself since his release has been that of a fearless journalist alerting the public to prosecutorial tyranny. In columns and editorials written in the mid-80s for a string of North Shore newspapers he owned, he contended that Thompson had perfected “the technique of political assassination,” that within the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago “there is an arrogance that smacks of the police state,” that there is a “Thompson Cabal . . . whose tentacles of influence have spread octopus-like through the federal prosecutorial apparatus in Chicago, the federal bench, and some of Chicago’s biggest law firms.” To “Thompson and his cronies” Rentschler attributed “Machiavellian cunning.”

Rentschler’s history nullifies none of the points he was making in his Sun-Times column. If anything, it adds authority and poignancy to his arguments. But it guarantees the kind of profound bias newspapers absolutely must acknowledge.

Thompson certainly thought so. “I’ve been listening to his criticisms for 20 years and I’ve never responded,” he told me. “But after 20 years I’d had it.” He wrote the Sun-Times a letter that Rentschler, who was forwarded a copy, characterized to me as “a blatant attempt to intimidate the free press and muffle a critical voice. . . . It’s a nasty, savage letter.”

“How can I intimidate the Sun-Times?” responded Thompson, who sits on the board of American Publishing Company, which owns the paper. “I didn’t call any editors. I didn’t talk to Dennis Britton. I didn’t use my position on the board. I just wrote the letter. That’s all I’ve done.”

Rentschler explained why he’d left his own background out of his column (as he’d left it out of numerous other columns and editorials, including one in the Reader about two prisoners he claimed were victims of prosecutorial zealousness). “I felt my case was relatively inconsequential.” But Kerner was “the biggest hide of all the hides that Jim Thompson went after.”

He went on, “I think the Sun-Times people are obviously well aware of my situation. I’ve discussed it with them, and they don’t consider it particularly pertinent.”

That’s not exactly true. According to Rentschler, Britton knew of Rentschler’s background. But Michelle Stevens, who edits the editorial pages, told me she didn’t. Apparently Britton (who didn’t return my calls) hadn’t told her. She wishes “there had been a mention in the [O’Malley] column about his own problem with the prosecution.”

The Sun-Times didn’t carry Rentschler again until this Tuesday, when he produced a column on the “burgeoning scandal” of obsessive prison building. After talking things over with Britton he noted in the piece that “twenty years ago, I served six months in a federal prison on charges brought by former U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson. This unhappy experience has given me unique insights.”

Rentschler told me he also wrote that during Thompson’s 14 years as governor he promised Illinois a safer society and built 15 new prisons, spending more than a billion dollars while violent crime doubled. All of that was edited out of the column.

The Great Man Speaks

Rabble. The roiling masses behind the police barricades. The mumbling mobs evaded by black limousines pulling up to back entrances. The gapers reporters sweep past when barking at the heels of great men.

Last week one of the new great men of our era, Newt Gingrich, signed copies of his book at Marshall Field’s. Wouldn’t you know it, about a hundred “protesters”–to use the word used by both papers–showed up. They chanted “Stop the war on the poor” and “Are you planning to destroy medicaid?”

Gingrich ignored them. Aside from noting a few of their chants, the papers ignored them too. But when the speaker of the House unburdened himself after the signing, the reporters in attendance understood that news was now in the making.

The Tribune would report: “Gingrich said the protesters had no new ideas, just ‘chants left over from the ’60s.’ Their ire was focused on the Republican Party’s proposed cuts of programs for health care, the elderly, public aid and children.

“‘What’s their solution? They don’t have one, except to chant,’ Gingrich said. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to have a book-signing for liberal ideas? They have nothing but a lot of noise.'”

The Sun-Times gave Gingrich greater space to flick away the swarm. It reported: “Gingrich didn’t address the protesters but later told reporters he believed they were ‘brought in by the unions’ or ‘left-wing activists.’

“What you have is a group of people who I assume are well-meaning, whose leaders got them chanting in a mindless way, who don’t have any facts, don’t do any reading, and don’t have a clue what’s going on,’ Gingrich said. ‘I’m not going to let a group of would-be fascists drive us off the public stage by shouting and chanting and screaming and being obnoxious.'”

Gingrich put his finger on something when he said the demonstrators “don’t have a clue what’s going on.” Nobody does. Whatever budget-balancing medicare-medicaid legislation the Republicans propose this fall, Gingrich is shrewdly minimizing the threat of an enlightened opposition by refusing to release any details ahead of time. And no one seems to care but the rabble. When the health plan in the pipeline was President Clinton’s, the press burned with skeptical inquiry and analysis. But that fire is out.

When “would-be fascists” get some idea in their heads about health care, a good dose of disdain is their just deserts. To make its coverage even more one-sided, the Sun-Times ran a sidebar devoted to Gingrich’s “opinions” that gave him extra space to sneer. “I think Medicare is the only issue with enough emotional power that if the liberal Democrats can get away with lying about it they could have a big impact on the next campaign. I think, however, that the big truth beats the big lie in a free society.”

Let’s be realistic. No sensible paper is going to cover a book signing in order to write about health issues. The reporters at Field’s strutted their stuff when they asked Gingrich about Anne Manning, the woman who told Vanity Fair she’d had an affair with him during his first marriage. Gingrich stormed out of the room. He returned a moment later to remind the reporters covering him that “the press can actually educate instead of descending to the gutter.”

News Bites

What a great town to grow up in. A Sun-Times profile of Colleen Hyland, the prosecutor who cross-examined Mel Reynolds, describes her as a “former Brownie” and an “idealistic, sunny teenager” from Mother McAuley High School (did Reynolds think he’d won the lotto when she stepped forward to grill him?) who grew up to be “a warm person, a person with a keen sense of humor and a generous spirit.”

It also mentions that both her father and her uncle, former circuit court clerk Matt Danaher, were convicted in a “$400,000 zoning kickback scheme” back in 1975.

A copy of the following letter may or may not have been slipped over our transom. “Dear Sun-Times: I faithfully read you every day for pleasure and revelation. I read you not just for Byrne and Mariotti but for “Olga Fokyercelf’ and “Phil McCraken.’ Your pages teem with buried delights! Alas, your recent fecklessness disappoints. Thinking yourselves prudent, you now print letters to Swap Shop signed by initials and hometown only. I fear you’ve merely upped the ante. The world is full of gamesmen, and perhaps one will soon test your mettle in the cloak of O.K., Skokie; P.U., Sauk Village; O.D., Gurnee; I.C., Carol Stream; D.K., Flossmoor; or E.Z., Mount Prospect. Eternal vigilance is the price of purity. En garde. U.I., Lansing.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.