Gil Thorp Gets Benched

The Sun-Times didn’t send a single reporter to Iraq, but it assigned Beetle Bailey to its comics pages. The strip’s arrival April 6 was a historic event, celebrated with a page-one announcement, a full-page profile of cartoonist Mort Walker, and an editorial. “We don’t know that the Chicago Tribune dropped its Beetle Bailey comic strip as an act of anti-patriotism,” the editorial conceded generously. “There is, we emphasize, no evidence of an intentional insult to our fighting men and women, nor can we prove that the timing of the sacking of the cartoon icon–dropped just when morale of our armed forces is of top concern–is anything more than odd coincidence.”

The Tribune stopped running Beetle Bailey in June 2002, for reasons it never adequately explained, and gave up rights to the strip this February. Last week yet another storied Tribune comic strip disappeared. Gil Thorp, gallantly retained in the sports section through Monday’s last hook shot of the basketball season (it went in, dooming Milford to second place in state), was gone on Tuesday, in its place a small notice that loyalists could now follow the Mudlarks on-line.

Imagine what the Sun-Times might say if it manages to get its hands on Gil Thorp:

“We don’t know that the Chicago Tribune dropped its Gil Thorp comic strip as a calculated insult to Christian fundamentalists. There is, we emphasize, no evidence that the ‘Left Behind’ books cowritten by Jerry Jenkins, the author of Gil Thorp, offended a coterie of proabortion atheists in the Tower who decided to show Jenkins what ‘end times’ are all about.”

Sports editor Bill Adee, his department’s number two, says that dropping Gil Thorp “was on the table from the time I walked in the door ten months ago.” (He came over from the Sun-Times.) He insists Jenkins’s religion had nothing to do with it and neither did a recent antiabortion story line. “There was a lot of internal debate about Gil over the years,” says Adee. “There was a feeling even from the die-hard ‘I love Gil’ people here that it wasn’t what it was. It just wasn’t the Gil Thorp of yesteryear. The only difference of opinion was that Gil at half speed was better than nothing.”

The strip runs in only about 65 newspapers, but its readers are ardent, even obsessive. Created by the late Jack Berrill in 1958, it was taken over by Jenkins in 1996. Tribune Media Services is the syndicate, while, a Tribune Company subsidiary, maintains the elaborate Web site www.gilthorp. com, where the original 1958 strips can be read along with contemporary strips dating back to 1997, the year the site was launched. The big draw is the Bucket, the message boards that churn day and night.

George Knue, editor of ChicagoSports. com, created and still manages the Web site, which he thinks of in two parts. “It’s today’s strip, and part and parcel of that is the history, the archives,” he says. “The other part is the message board. To describe it as a unique community of people is probably not doing it justice. The people on there often do pick [the strip] apart, really pick it apart. They’re really good at it. But they’re also people who at some point in their life came to Gil Thorp and they loved the strip.”

When the Tribune dropped the strip, the Bucket searched for meaning. “Was the recent storyline too controversial, with its anti-abortion theme?” wondered Freond. “Or does the Trib just feel it’s not popular enough?”

“What anti-abortion story?” asked Tooky69.

“When Melllissssa was found to be preggers,” replied ArchieHigh. “Melllissssa was going to have an abortion, but Gil Thorp talked her out of it. When she was going to be kicked out of her home, the Thorps invited her to move in, because, at age 15, she has been in trouble all of her life. The two girls from the Catholic school also had a private discussion that they had chased married men in the past, but said past was behind them now. At age 15. Finally, the insinuation was made that if you’re a good boy and hang out with Catholic girls, you’re bound for trouble.”

“Well, I’ve always found that to be true,” replied Azim Week.

Gil Thorp has actually been written, uncredited, for the last couple of years by Jenkins’s 25-year-old son Chad, an assistant baseball coach and baseball sports information director at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. Chad Jenkins believes what Bill Adee insists isn’t true–that the pregnancy story line doomed the strip in the Tribune. After all, it was notorious enough that Tribune public editor Don Wycliff wrote a column on it. “A comic strip, like a newspaper column, is the idiosyncratic product of its creator,” Wycliff reasoned on March 6, “so it should be no surprise that [Jerry] Jenkins has projected some of his own beliefs into ‘Gil Thorp.’ It also should be no surprise that Gil Thorp, fictional though he is, would be dealing with a knotty contemporary issue. Remember: He is a high-school coach.”

Pregnancies last nine months, and Chad Jenkins–who Wycliff seemed unaware was the strip’s actual creator–felt he couldn’t leave Melissa’s in limbo. He turned in a story line that had her boyfriend Kyle trying to do the right thing, dropping out of school to get a job and find a place they could move into. “My editor wrote me,” says Jenkins, “and said, ‘Where’s this story going? Because we’ve had complaints about this story line and you’ve brought it back up. Management is nervous.’ He said, ‘Abortion is a touchy subject, and it’s supposed to be a comic strip.'”

I asked Walter Mahoney, Tribune Media Services’ vice president for domestic syndication, for his personal reaction to the story line. “I thought it was a little edgy,” he said, not making this sound like a compliment. “I’d say that in the history of Gil Thorp it was not out of character. Jack Berrill, who was married to a high school counselor, frequently touched on issues that at the time were edgy. Teenage pregnancy–that came up certainly. Marijuana. Family issues.”

Mahoney said that so far as he knew, the only Gil Thorp readers anywhere who complained about how the strip handled Melissa’s pregnancy were here in Chicago.

“They said to hold off on scripts until I found out if the story line would be OK,” says Jenkins. Eventually Tribune Media Services told him to go ahead. “I don’t care much for the story line either,” he admits. “I’m trying to wrap it up and move on.” For a couple of weeks in late May, Melissa and Kyle try to make it work, and then their story moves to the “back burner.” But he can’t forget about it entirely. The baby’s due in August.

For a Moment, We Were Scared

Though the war in Iraq made all the difference in the world to Iraq, it didn’t have much impact on the United States. It briefly distracted the Americans who’d supported war and the Americans who’d opposed it, but they’ve now gone on with their argument as if nothing happened.

For a few uneasy days the Iraqis seemed to be putting up a surprisingly stubborn resistance, but just about the time that a spate of articles appeared reaming the warmongers who’d said Saddam’s regime would fold like a house of cards, Baghdad collapsed and “cakewalk” turned out to be a pretty good description after all. As for those retired generals on TV who said the coalition should have put twice as large an army in the field, the most likely result of that would have been four times as many friendly fire casualties (twice as many troops firing at twice as many troops).

Once GIs started sunbathing in Saddam’s palaces, pundits resumed cranking out the same old same old.

Wisenheimer Molly Ivins wrote that Donald Rumsfeld, “who seems prepared to run the world,” was pushing exile Ahmed Chalabi, General Jay Garner, and former CIA boss James Woolsey to take over in Iraq–“a crook, a Zionist, and an old spy who thinks this is the beginning of WW IV.”

William Safire wondered rhetorically, “Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption?” But he wasn’t worried. “Freed scientists,” he predicted, “will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.”

Paul Krugman still had no use for the White House. “There is a pattern to the Bush administration’s way of doing business that does not bode well for the future–a pattern of conquest followed by malign neglect.”

Powerful editorial pages played their usual ditties. The New York Times fretted: “From the beginning, the chief concern about the Iraqi invasion has not been the Pentagon’s ability to prevail on the battlefield, but the Bush administration’s ability to plan for the day after victory. So far, nothing has happened to alleviate that concern.”

The Wall Street Journal sneered at multilateralists: “It’s worth remembering that the U.N. drove itself into this ditch.”

And last Sunday was business as usual at the Tribune, which supported the war but filled its op-ed pages with essayists who did not. “Those nations that wish America ill…can no longer assume this country is too afraid of stirring Arab anger or European angst to use its unmatched power if it feels threatened,” the editorial page rumbled. On the opposite page, Clarence Page was warning, “Look out, world. The war hawks are on a roll….And if you raise a peep against it, you may find your lack of ‘resolve’ shouted down by vigilant, self-appointed guardians of the freedoms we hold dear.” And Steve Chapman reflected, “Skeptics like me welcomed the end of the Cold War because it relieved the American people of a heavy burden, letting them live their own lives in peace. But those who worship military glory and activist government recoil at the idea that Americans might have nothing more important to worry about than their individual pursuit of happiness.”

Last week Eric Zorn based an intriguing column on the fact that those Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that Safire wasn’t worried about hadn’t shown up–not in battle and not in warehouses. Zorn’s support for preemptive war had rested on the assumption they existed, and he wrote that their absence posed an intriguing litmus test–do you hope we find them or do you hope we don’t? Do you really want to see the U.S. knocked down to size–“humiliated and humbled, exposed as a clumsy, arrogant, paranoid bully”?

Interesting question, but possibly not one that matters much. Regardless of where those stockpiles of anthrax, sarin, and plutonium might or might not turn up, the facts on the ground were just as glorious or calamitous as anyone wanted them to be. The mobs that toppled statues one day ransacked Baghdad the next, while Rumsfeld muttered about freedom being untidy and about teaching Syria a lesson, and the Taliban regrouped back in Afghanistan. Hubris abounded, to rage at or wallow in. Somewhere in the Middle East a traumatized intellectual surely was writing an anguished essay about a world that had just changed, utterly and forever. It hadn’t here.

Safety Second

It’s easier to write about the politics of an issue than about the issue. “Homeland security is one of the few issues where Democrats can attack a popular wartime president,” said an April 3 Tribune piece by the Washington bureau’s Jill Zuckman. “And they are doing so with a vengeance, regularly taking President Bush and the Republicans to task for not spending enough to help cities and states protect themselves.”

Do the Democrats have a point? That question was beyond the scope of the article, whose headline suggested opportunism: “Democrats assail Bush on homeland dollars / Senators focus on public’s fears.” But a long cover story in the March 10 New Republic by Jonathan Chait argued that tax cuts matter more to the White House than domestic safety, which can’t be allowed to cost so much that the tax cuts become unsupportable. Chait offered a list of spending requests slashed or vetoed by President Bush. One was $379.7 million requested by his secretary of energy to protect facilities where nuclear weapons are stored–cut by the White House to $26.4 million.

Paul Krugman, a relentless Bush basher, cited Chait’s article on April 1 and advanced it. According to Krugman, the money the Department of Homeland Security has been able to spread around has favored rural states that voted for Bush in 2000: “[Homeland Security] spends 7 times as much protecting each resident of Wyoming as it does protecting each resident of New York.”

Is that number true? If true, is it significant? Is Illinois getting what it needs, getting what it was promised, doing as well by Washington as Wyoming is? “Bush’s record on homeland security ought to be considered a scandal,” Chait wrote. “Yet, not only is it not a scandal, it’s not even a story, having largely failed to register with the public, the media, or even the political elite.”

On April 6 the Tribune’s Washington bureau weighed in again on the politics of homeland security. “The high cost of increased security,” wrote Frank James, “is pitting local and state officials against one another in a scramble for federal dollars. Many municipal officials argue they are responsible for police and other security costs, so the federal aid should go directly to them. State officials, however, insist they should be the conduit.” But though he perfunctorily quoted Mayor Daley and a spokesman for Governor Blagojevich, James didn’t demonstrate any real argument between them over how the money to Illinois should be allocated–or tell us how much that money is or whether it’s close to what Chicago and Springfield think they need.

If Chait was right that the real story about homeland security was still a nonstory, it hasn’t become one in Chicago.

While They Were Sleeping

Four weeks ago I put in a plug for an upcoming public forum at the Northwestern University School of Law on regulatory changes being considered by the Federal Communications Commission. Since that date I’ve heard from readers wondering if the April 2 forum was actually held. They hadn’t read a word of coverage in the daily papers.

They hadn’t because there wasn’t any. FCC commissioner Michael Copps was on hand–he’s highly skeptical of the kind of ongoing deregulation favored by, among others, FCC chairman Michael Powell and the Tribune Company, which stands to get even bigger if the process continues. So was David Crowl, senior vice president of Clear Channel Radio, which, thanks to deregulation, has grown from 120 stations in 1996 to 1,200 today. Tribune Company vice president Shaun Sheehan also participated. The working press stayed home.