D-Day Deux

You’d expect plans for a D-Day invasion to be guarded like the smallpox virus. Chicago’s was an inch from being common knowledge. Retired Army colonel Kenneth Plummer, chairman of the commemorative exercise, tells us that a good year and a half ago he began meeting with the appropriate authorities: the mayor’s office, police and fire, Streets and San, the Park District, even the alderman whose human rights committee oversees veterans’ affairs.

Loose lips sink ships. Before Plummer could orchestrate a public announcement of the June 4 operation at Montrose Beach, the Sun-Times splashed it on page one. There’d be “warplanes strafing the beach, bunkers exploding and GIs streaming ashore under heavy fire.”

The press and the politicians are not always natural enemies. The day after the Sun-Times broke the story, the paper followed with a spectacular example of mutual advantage. “NOT ON MY BEACH,” vowed the front page, which offered a huge photo of a windswept Helen Shiller pacing the terrain as Rommel might have. The local alderman denounced the mock battle as “insane” and “absurd” and predicted “tremendous chaos.” Why, Shiller demanded to know, was the ward told nothing about this assault?

Plummer was perplexed. Shiller belongs to the human rights committee, whose chairman, Alderman Lorraine Dixon, he’d been briefing. Through that channel alone, not to mention all the others, he’d have expected her to hear about the invasion. “Everybody seems to have known about it, so it’s hard to believe she didn’t,” he said this week.

Furthermore, what did she mean, not on my beach? “That’s not her beach,” Plummer told us. “It belongs to the public.”

“I agree with him,” says Shiller: not on my beach is nothing she said or even thought. It was a snappy headline, that’s all. “A woman on my block came up and said, do you really own that beach? And I said, no, but you do.”

Anyway, Plummer apologized and now they’re meeting. “She raised legitimate concerns about parking, congestion. She said, why didn’t I hold it up at Great Lakes? And I said if we did, the only people who would see it would be the people in big homes in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest.”

Plummer told her the mock invasion would last just an hour and a half and be followed by a memorial service and everyone singing “God Bless America.”

“She liked that,” Plummer told us. “She said nobody ever mentioned this as a memorial. We said, alderman, it’s in the schedule of events we gave you. It’s the whole purpose of it. She mentioned, couldn’t we do it without weapons? I said, that’s ridiculous. How can you do a reenactment without weapons? But it’ll be very solemn, very dignified, very appropriate.”

Shiller insists she knew nothing about Plummer’s invasion plans until she was awakened April 13 by a news radio reporter asking about the story in the morning Sun-Times. At that afternoon’s City Council meeting she introduced a resolution calling for public hearings.

“When I got back to my downtown office at a quarter to five, they were calling wanting to know if I’d meet them at the beach in 20 minutes to take a picture. I didn’t have a clue they were going to put it on the front page.”

Was that going overboard? we asked her.

She won’t knock the Sun-Times. “They had a story, they did it, and they did it their way. This was their story. They created it. They made it. I clearly benefited from a front-page picture. You can’t have it both ways.”

Meanwhile, from the Tribune there was hardly a peep. The Tribune had nothing to say about D-Day deux besides an editorial urging Shiller to take “a larger, longer view.” From the Tower, the landing was one of many local “rites” scheduled to take their place among “a nationwide and international series of memorializing events.”

In short, the Tribune took an editorial position on a matter it wasn’t covering. This chaste silence lasted until April 25, when the World War II Commemoration Committee held a press conference to formally announce its plans. The Tribune then ran a dutiful piece in section two. The Sun-Times slapped D-Day back on page one. “Shiller Gives Up In D-Day Dispute” said the headline, which Shiller deems an overstatement.

The Tribune was silenced by its own scruple. The invasion is, in a sense, a Tribune event. It’s being underwritten by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, among whose board members are Howard Tyner, editor of the Tribune; Jack Fuller, the paper’s president; and John Madigan, the publisher. The Tribune knew too much to break the story.

Plummer says the only reason the invasion is being held in Chicago is that the foundation insisted on it. Always interested in battlefield commemorations, it was asked by members of the World War II Historical Reenactment Society to underwrite a landing in Hammond. This will be the 50th anniversary of D-Day, responded retired major general Neal Creighton, president of the foundation. Think bigger. Think Chicago.

Creighton then asked Plummer, who’d organized parades for Vietnam and Desert Storm veterans and knows his way around Chicago’s bureaucracies, to pull the event together.

The Sun-Times made hay and was tempted to make more. An editorial writer asked Plummer what the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation was doing underwriting the glorification of violence. “The violence in World War II was for a just and noble cause,” Plummer argued.

The question must have been irresistible. But the editorial that followed didn’t sucker punch a Tribune institution. Dismissing the objections of such as Shiller as “superficial,” the Sun-Times sided with Plummer.

Keystone Commentaries

It’s hard to imagine the rock-ribbed Tribune ever having any truck with squishy softness. But now a Tribune columnist stands accused of “ninnyism . . . socio-mythic ninnyism . . . elitist ninnyism.”

The fulminating accuser is the curmudgeonly Ray Coffey of the Sun-Times. The litmus test distinguishing Coffey from Mary Schmich is 219 N. Keystone.

Schmich’s column ran the day after a circuit judge found five sisters and a boyfriend guilty of neglecting 19 children living with them in a two-bedroom apartment there. “There are those of us who have wondered whether the Keystone story has been blown out of proportion,” Schmich wrote. “The doubters have felt, just as the defense argued, that poverty was on trial.”

Although police found no soap, toothbrushes, or husbands in the apartment, neither were there any drugs, Schmich observed, and the children “showed no signs of mistreatment or malnourishment.” She wrote, “Most anyone who has ever lived in poverty knows how easy it is for lives to spin into chaos. For the refrigerator to go empty. For things to get dirty, really dirty. . . . We doubters have wondered whether much of the dismay over the Keystone case is rooted in middle-class dread of body odor and a greasy stove.”

This was too much for Coffey. Naturally refusing to identify Schmich by name, which would have added the note of dignity that journalists habitually consider their spats unworthy of, Coffey accused her of thought “so patronizing, so insulting to so many decent and responsible people–as to call for rebuttal.”

Coffey argued, “What was on trial was not poverty or a greasy stove. What was on trial was a group of people who had evaded and neglected basic human personal responsibility.”

Coffey observed that the five convicted mothers had their 19 children by 16 men. Three of the children had been expelled from school because they lacked immunizations, and a 14-year-old hadn’t been in a classroom for more than a year and couldn’t read. As for means, various welfare programs brought more than $5,000 a month into the household.

“Can poverty itself constitute a credible plea of innocence to any of this?” Coffey wondered. “Being poor is not exactly a rare or exotic condition beyond the precincts of Tribune Tower.”

Score one for the curmudgeon.

We were invited to review the Keystone coverage by a Sun-Times editor. What we discovered was one of those perceptual divergences from which genuine debate could spring if newspapers were capable of it. The editorial pages, echoing Schmich and Coffey, agreed on the facts, but went off in two directions interpreting them.

The Tribune headlined its musing “Sorting out the Keystone saga,” while the Sun-Times editorial, “Parents Who Try Won in Keystone Kids Case,” called the matter “infamous” and said the judge had “put the responsibility where it belongs: on the parents.”

“Just as it was a little too convenient to hold up this case as an unspeakable horror,” the Tribune cogitated with relentless evenhandedness, “it was too convenient to claim poverty alone was on trial.” Perhaps after a year immersed in “Killing Our Children,” the Tribune now finds it difficult to see the trees for the forest. “With all the emphasis on the supposedly bizarre goings-on, perhaps the real point was missed. Perhaps 219 N. Keystone, aside from the number of kids under one roof, is all too typical of abuse and neglect.”

The paper argued, “Anyone who has read an autopsy report on a dead child or viewed X-rays revealing multiple fractures knows that child abuse comes in much worse degrees than this.”

It didn’t occur to the Sun-Times to cut these parents slack for the ways in which they hadn’t mistreated their children: “The verdict sends a clear message that poverty does not absolve parents of their basic responsibilities to keep their children clean, supervised, attending school and receiving medical attention.”

Or as Coffey’s piece said bluntly about Schmich’s piece: “You get the drift: The defendants are victims and we’re all guilty. That is brutal nonsense.”

No, it isn’t nonsense–although a visit we just made to some 18th-century slave quarters outside Williamsburg, Virginia, might be skewing our thinking. But it’s also beside the point. Victims have no special right to victimize. We suppose we’re on Coffey’s side, despite his familiar sacrifice of light for heat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.