Defending Reagan, Forgetting Her Job

AIDS came in and the cold war went out with the 80s. How you remember Ronald Reagan, who was president for most of that decade, could depend on which of those two great historic events touched you more profoundly.

Rick Garcia, political director of the gay rights group Equality Illinois, hasn’t joined in the national mourning. He happened to be in Springfield last Friday when a display of Reagan memorabilia was being dedicated in the capitol’s rotunda. The governor’s office had organized the display and set out a public memory book that eventually will be given to the Reagan library. With reporters and camera crews looking on, Governor Blagojevich wrote the first inscription.

Garcia had come to Springfield to help welcome the Rainbow Riders, two consciousness-raising lesbian grandmothers who’ve been biking across the country. Afterward he went over to the capitol to pick up a legislative directory and some newspapers. Passing through the rotunda, he noticed the Reagan display. The ceremony was over, and the crowd had dispersed. Garcia got in line behind a man and his two sons who were signing the memory book. When his turn came he wrote: “My memory of President Ronald Reagan: Thousands of American men, women and children were dying from HIV and AIDS during his administration. The president did nothing. The president said nothing. Not until the very end of his second term was he even able to utter the word ‘AIDS.’ Reagan’s silence and his administration’s policies contributed to the suffering and dying of thousands of men, women and children.”

Two other people in the nearly empty rotunda had also decided to write in the book–Julie Staley, a reporter for WICS TV in Springfield, and Curt Claycomb, her cameraman. Having covered Blagojevich, they were headed to lunch, but before taking off they wanted to pay their respects. Staley says, “So I walked up there and waited for this guy taking an immensely long time. And I thought, ‘He must really love Ronald Reagan.'”

Garcia continued writing: “I mourn the president the way he mourned these men, women and children–with silence. May God forgive him, I can’t. Rick Garcia.” Then he went on his way.

Staley says, “I thought I’d sign right below him. I wanted to read what he wrote first. Oh my gosh! He totally defamed Ronald Reagan about his having no stand on the AIDS situation and HIV and all that. It was very cruel. It was inappropriate, and it made no sense whatsoever that he would do that. I was very incensed. I loved Ronald Reagan!”

It’s not something she wants to discuss in any detail, but she says that over the years her grandparents, parents, and husband have given Reagan “a lot of support.” She fully shares their devotion. “I turned the page,” she says. “I said, ‘I’m not signing on that page.’ I wrote my thing, and the photographer wrote his thing. As we were getting ready to leave we saw a security guard walking up, and the photographer mentioned it to him. He said, ‘Some guy wrote something defamatory.’ You know, you don’t write hate messages in a public book.”

Just then, Garcia happened to walk back into the rotunda. He saw a guard, a TV reporter, and a cameraman gathered at the memory book. He heard the guard say, “Was it the guy with two kids?” and the reporter respond, “No. It’s signed ‘Rick Garcia.'” He headed toward them.

Staley says, “He walked up and looked puzzlingly at us.”

Garcia says, “She pointed at me and said, ‘There he is!'”

Staley says, “I said, ‘You’re entitled to your freedom of speech, but this is an inappropriate place to do that.'”

Garcia e-mailed me his version of their confrontation. “She walked toward me and screeched ‘That is just tasteless and classless.’ She repeated ‘You are tasteless!’ I told her ‘Speaking the truth is not classless.’ The cop said ‘Why don’t you show some respect.’ ‘Why didn’t President Reagan show some respect?’ I replied and walked away. As I walked away the reporter shouted at me ‘You are classless, totally tasteless. You are a big loser.’ She repeated that a couple of times.”

“I don’t deny that I said that,” says Staley.

“If she had just been there to sign the book and didn’t like what I had to say, fine, but she was reporting on the activities in the rotunda,” Garcia writes. “Any reporter worth her salt upon seeing a non-complimentary entry would look for other such entries and then seek those folks out because there is a story there.”

Staley says, “We were out of tape. We had nothing more we could shoot. This was our lunchtime. This was on my personal time. I wasn’t standing with a microphone in my hand. My equipment was set aside. I didn’t sign the book ‘Julia Staley, WICS.’ I signed the book as Julia Heil Staley, someone who loved Ronald Reagan.”

If you’d still been shooting tape, I ask Staley, would you have asked Garcia some questions?

“Oh, yeah, oh yeah, definitely,” she says.

Do you want to try to reach him in Chicago?

“I don’t want anything more to do with him.”

WICS news director Susan Finzen says, “She had a right to express her opinion. Why does he consider it all right for him to express his opinion but not her?”

Garcia writes, “I called the station to complain. I was told that someone would call me back. No one did. I called again and said that I wanted to submit a formal complaint and indeed I told the woman that I would not go away silently that I would pursue this. No one from the station has called….In my thirty years of activism I have had many many occasions to have interaction with reporters. Never have I encountered such unprofessional behavior. I want to lodge an official complaint.”

Staley responds, “At that moment I was not representing the station. I was there as a private citizen. My company’s backing me up on this. We’re all stunned it’s even an issue.”

Bird’s Right–But That’s No Help

When the subject’s racial, journalists do a lot of posturing. Simple disagreement with a strongly worded opinion is rarely enough.

Last week Larry Bird was asked by Jim Gray of ESPN, “Does the NBA lack enough white superstars in your opinion?”

Yes, said Bird. “As we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited. But it is a black man’s game, and it will be forever. I mean the greatest athletes in the world are African-American.”

Bird went on to say that in his playing days he didn’t like being guarded by a white opponent. He felt disrespected.

As president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, Bird’s in a pretty good position to know what executives are thinking, what players are thinking, and what fans are thinking. But Selena Roberts promptly wrote in the New York Times that Bird spoke “out of ignorance,” and the Sun-Times’s Greg Couch jumped on him for being “dumb enough to tap into racists’ thoughts.”

Where was the racism?

“Yes, the league can use another Larry Bird,” wrote Couch, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was now agreeing with him. “And if you find him, send him to the United Center.” But when Bird said so, Couch went on, he was playing into the hands “of racist, homophobic, sexist xenophophes.”

Writers like Rick Telander and Rick Morrissey who rolled their thoughts around for a day or two before responding to Bird were likely to find what he said tolerable, even sensible. But Couch scolded and Roberts condescended. “As most understand,” she lectured, “the N.B.A. isn’t desperate for a superstar of a certain color, but craves a colorful talent who transcends race the way Michael Jordan did in the 90’s–and the way Yao Ming just might do in the coming years.”

As long as race needs to be transcended, it matters. While it matters, the white fan base might appreciate a few white superstars.

News Bites

• Somebody out there is really unhappy working nights.

Tempo, June 14: “Dear Amy: I am a single female in my late 30s. I’ve worked on the second shift my whole adult life. My only friends are people I’ve met from work….Any suggestions on how a single person such as myself can get other single people who work the second and third shifts together? –Single on the Second Shift”

Tempo, June 14: “Dear Cheryl: I’m in my late 30s. I’ve worked on the second shift my whole adult life. The only friends that I have are work friends….Where do single adults that work second and third shift go to meet other singles? –Night Owl”

“I actually think it is an amazing coincidence,” says Amy Dickinson–the alternative being that someone was making mischief. “She publishes three times a week. I publish seven times a week. And we both work two or three weeks ahead. For the same letter to land on both our laps and in both our columns–it’s amazing.”

And humbling. She adds, “We all fancy we’re so unique that our readers would want to hear only from us.”

• This week’s circulation scandal at the Sun-Times reminds me of a story publisher John Cruickshank was telling about his predecessor, David Radler. Back in the days when Radler and Conrad Black ran Hollinger International–before the board finally turned on them and accused them of, in effect, looting the company–Radler, Cruickshank, and Michael Cooke were out to dinner together. Cruickshank was then the paper’s vice president of editorial, and Cooke, as now, its editor in chief. Radler had brought them to Chicago from Hollinger papers in Vancouver.

“David,” said Cooke, “how do you get rich?”

Radler reached into the sugar bowl and helped himself to a handful of Sweet ‘N Low and sugar packets. “That’s how you get rich,” he said.

• When the Tribune launched “Ask Amy” last July 20 to enormous fanfare, the Sun-Times did more than just counter. Forewarned by the Tribune’s publicity barrage, it acted preemptively, adding Ellie Tesher to its own feature section on July 18. “Got a problem?” a page-one banner shouted. “Ask Ellie: Chicago’s new wise and witty advice columnist.” Across the street, Amy marveled at the Sun-Times’s alacrity–until someone explained to her that the paper had simply added a Canadian feature it had already been running in Red Streak.

Dickinson hatched a little plot. “I decided I’d welcome her to town,” she tells me. “I went over there with some Fannie May candies and asked for her.”

“She doesn’t work here,” said the security guard in the Sun-Times lobby. “She’s in Canada.”

Dickinson feigned confusion. “But look in the paper,” she said. “It says, ‘Chicago’s own.'”

“I don’t know, lady,” said the security guard.

“It was my own little secret thing,” Dickinson tells me. “It was really fun. It was me by myself with the candy.”

If David Radler had been passing through the lobby he might have offered to take the candy and run it up to her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik, Nick Steinkamp.