In late October 1978, Mayor Michael A. Bilandic was about to present his budget for the coming year, and Sun-Times reporter Harry Golden sat at his Underwood typewriter, rapidly pecking away at its keys with the index fingers of both hands. Mouthing his words as they formed on the paper, Golden–the dean of the City Hall press room–planned to break one of his usual budget exclusives. He wasn’t about to be sidetracked by any distractions.
“Hey, Janey’s downstairs!”
Fran Spielman, the City Hall reporter for WIND radio, yelled the words in a near hysterical titter as she slammed down the telephone. The tip had come from “Stash,” an old Chicago cop whose clout had helped him land the cushy City Hall detail.
“Going, Harry?” asked WBBM radio’s Bob Crawford, who had been on the City Hall beat almost as long as Golden.
“Fuck her,” Golden replied in his gravelly Brooklyn accent. “She’s a crazy bitch. I ain’t wasting my time.” His colorful language was offered for effect and didn’t necessarily reflect his true feelings.
The other reporters scooped up their pens, notebooks, and microphones as they rushed out the door. It was the beginning of a new era, but Golden would have none of it. He sat at his desk refusing to pay homage to the fired commissioner of consumer sales, the wife of a former newspaperman and colleague, Jay McMullen, and now the rebel candidate for mayor.
Jane Byrne was an oddity, the center of a one-ring circus. But it wasn’t long before Golden would join the rest of the City Hall reporters in the chase, analyzing her every word. Once she became mayor, she would rule with a whim of iron, turning Democratic politics upside down and forever changing the relationship between the city’s politicians and those who write about them.
Byrne redefined what could appropriately be called news. During her reign, reporters came to use terms like “revolving door,” “snit,” and “gang bang,” and editors pushed for their bosses to install computers in the press room to help keep up with her frenzied manner of news making. The basics of reporting changed, as styles characteristic of the Front Page-era quickly vanished.
Vindictiveness, retribution, and petty personal gripes were all played down by the media during the administrations of her predecessors. But they became a staple during Byrne’s four years in office. Old traditions of aldermen giving reporters envelopes of cash, bottles of booze, and other gratuities came to an abrupt end in the face of her reform. And the oldest tradition of journalism–that reporters remain uninvolved in the stories they cover–went by the wayside. It even became common for reporters to interview each other about what Byrne had said and what she had done.
City Hall suddenly became the hottest beat in town. And City Hall reporters found themselves thrust into their own spotlight. As one of seven full-time reporters stationed in the press room, I can tell you firsthand that light burned bright. Within a matter of months, the press room grew from 7 desks to 18, and from two small rooms to four.
Bilandic was responsible for his own fall as mayor. His once implausible defeat became a certainty after a record-setting winter pounded the city with more than 78 inches of snow from New Year’s Eve all the way up until the sun shined bright on election day, February 27.
Shaken by the first big snowfall–a full 22 inches–Bilandic had moved to take charge, announcing plans to clear streets and warning residents to relocate their cars to nearby school parking lots that he said had been cleared of snow. Everyone in the media seemed to believe him, except a vigilant night editor at the Tribune who sent reporters to check it out. They discovered that three days later the lots were still buried deep in snow.
Bilandic’s aides blamed the resulting political problems on the media’s coverage, not on growing voter anger at this sudden burst of incompetence. Mike Royko wrote a series of columns touting Byrne, who had been positioned as a reformer only after she lost her job as consumer sales commissioner the previous year. She had enjoyed the attention and support of the late Mayor Daley, but quickly lost stature after his death. Bilandic ignored her advice. Then Byrne accused him of “greasing” the way for a taxicab fare hike without her involvement. She claimed he had entered into a secret deal with Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, whom McMullen had dubbed “Fast Eddie” in one of his Daily News stories. Byrne called for a federal investigation, and Bilandic fired her.
Bilandic’s chief of staff, Tom Donovan, arranged for the mayor to tour the snow-smothered city by helicopter, and he extended a private invitation to the full-time City Hall reporters to meet with Bilandic “informally” in his office, without TV cameras.
We had to restrain our laughter as we walked into the mayor’s fifth-floor office. Sitting under a portrait of Boss Daley, Bilandic wore a dark blue-knit cap that was bunched up and tilting off to one side of his head; he looked like the Grinch who stole Christmas. He wore a long-sleeved thermal undershirt pulled over his dress shirt and tie. The undershirt was too tight, and his gold-linked cuffs poked out of the sleeves.
“You know,” Bilandic began, “we tried, but it’s not our faults–it’s the way they are making car locks. You can’t get in there with a wire and unlock the locks, so we couldn’t move the cars. They don’t make cars the way they used to.” He looked at Golden and said, “You know, Harry…”
Golden nodded as if he wanted to get down every word. But when I looked over at his narrow yellow notepad, I saw that he was simply sliding his pen back and forth, creating dark lines. This went on for an hour. And as we rushed back to our desks, Golden blurted out, “I think that Janey Byrnes has driven him nuts. Aaaargh! Aaaargh! Aaaargh!”
For seven weeks, controversy followed upon controversy. The administration was rocked by news that Blandic’s pal Ken Sain, the former deputy mayor, was given a $90,000 contract to write a snow-removal plan that no one could find. In an effort to appease white voters, CTA trains and buses were ordered to bypass inner-city stops in favor of outlying neighborhoods. Blacks, Hispanics, and many other residents were left standing on el platforms, helplessly watching as trains rushed past.
As the snow brought the world’s busiest airport to its knees, Bilandic had his socialite wife, Heather, filming campaign commercials that touted O’Hare’s awards. Meanwhile, passengers remained stranded, and their luggage piled up in the airport’s concourses like unplowed snowdrifts.
Bilandic refused to believe polls that showed his popularity plummeting while Byrne’s started to soar. At a luncheon for his top precinct captains, Bilandic explained away his troubles by comparing himself to Jesus Christ and the Shah of Iran in a rambling speech that left his supporters dumbfounded.
The truth is Bilandic was a decent mayor. He’d managed the city’s Finance Committee under Mayor Daley with finesse and professionalism. But the political empire Byrne inherited was a collection of spineless rabble, aldermen conditioned to obey orders. A handful would take advantage of Byrne’s turbulent style of governing as a cover for their own greed. As she pandered to the media as part of a strategy orchestrated with her husband’s help, the aldermen soon forgot one of the Boss’s cardinal rules: Don’t talk to the press.
Aldermen who had previously tiptoed past the press room suddenly made themselves at home there during Byrne’s first years in office. They offered “insight” as reporters wrote up their stories, and in turn accepted suggestions on what would make good news. They introduced resolutions before the City Council even as they collected intelligence on our activities to report dutifully back to Byrne.
The press room was located on the second floor of City Hall, between the elevator banks and the City Council chambers. Bilandic had never entered the room during my time there, though he did pause at the door briefly on his way to participate in Byrne’s inauguration.
In contrast, Byrne stopped in frequently, at least at the beginning. Her last visit occurred while she was defending her actions in the 1980 firefighters’ strike. As she paused to get a cup of water, she looked up and noticed her picture hanging above the cooler, ringed with large red concentric circles, like a dartboard. She crushed the cup and spun around on her three-inch heels, never to return.
But Byrne didn’t have to visit the press room to influence the news–she was a media creature. Most of her top aides were former journalists, and McMullen had spent years in the press room. He understood the nature of the beast and believed he could force reporters to bow to his wife’s power. They often did in public. But privately they harbored a deep resentment, rattling off their colorful impieties from behind closed doors. Unlike with prior mayors, reporters developed close personal contacts with Byrne that in turn nurtured deep feelings that were later reflected in their reporting. This affected how Byrne responded, and it soon turned into a vicious, uncontrollable cycle.
Byrne’s rapid-fire style of political gamesmanship tore the scribes from the comforts of their slow-paced Underwoods. Most made the transition to computers, but Harry Golden clung to the traditional methods almost until his death in 1988. He dictated his “exclusives” by telephone from the confines of a small closet hidden from the press room. The sanctity of his scoop was often betrayed by his loud, raspy voice as it echoed through the halls into the straining ears of his rivals. When he didn’t have an exclusive, Golden turned up the volume, ferociously barking into the telephone, commanding “rewrite” to take down his words.
Byrne got personally involved in the stories reporters wrote, and she took their criticism personally. She gleefully pushed them into controversies and remembered those who ridiculed her during her campaign. She even tried to ban some reporters from the press room and vowed never to speak again to others, including myself. She relished humiliating patronage employees who had worked against her, transferred police who had campaigned for Bilandic, and punished those she had overheard criticizing her looks. Twenty years later it’s hard to imagine that any of this really happened.
I had just been named the City Hall reporter for the Southtown Economist in October 1978, when Bilandic’s press secretary, Celesta Jurkovich, introduced me to the six full-time reporters in the press room. Few of them took notice of me as they hammered out their stories on old typewriters, provided free of charge by the city’s purchasing department. Everything in the press room had been “donated” by taxpayers–telephones, a television, desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and a water cooler (with a hot-water spigot for coffee). That reflected the media’s attitude at the time–the reporters took all of it for granted because they thought they deserved it.
Jurkovich turned to Golden, who was working at his desk. “He’s been here ten years,” she told me in a whisper. “The dean.”
Golden glanced up, annoyed by the intrusion.
When she left, I walked over to introduce myself, trying to break the ice with this question: “Why would anyone want to be in this room for ten years?”
Golden’s eyes opened wide and his nostrils flared. He turned from his typewriter and confronted me, shouting in what sounded like a foreign accent, “Who da hell arrrre youuuu? Youuuuu dint even know who I am.”
The tribe went wild. The Tribune’s jovial Bob Davis sat back in his chair laughing, while Bob Crawford covered his mouth. Fran Spielman said, “Give him hell, ‘Arry.” And WMAQ radio’s Bill Cameron just shook his head. Joe Kolina, a reporter for City News Bureau, grabbed my arm and led me to an empty desk that I later learned had belonged to McMullen. I figured my days were numbered.
Real news stories came few and far between. The big “scoop” when I first arrived was reported by Davis–Bilandic had personally announced he would run in the 10K Beverly Marathon.
Fortunately, circumstances changed so fast that Golden never remembered our introduction. He and I became close friends and later colleagues at the same newspaper. He eventually showed me what he called the prized possession of the press room: a small copper key kept in the top drawer of Davis’s desk. The key opened the door to the television cabinet, and inside were a dozen bottles of booze. Crown Royal, Chivas Regal, and Stolichnaya, all given to the reporters by members of the City Council. Whenever aldermen would call up to ask how many reporters were in the press room, Golden would meticulously type up a list that included the seven regulars and about two dozen other half-time reporters who wandered in and out during big news days. Roman Pucinski would come in with six bottles of a Polish vodka. Golden said no one drank it, but he often used it to clean his winter-stained shoes. On the inside of the cabinet was a quote from McMullen that read, “You can’t walk around City Hall without getting hit by an occasional piece of falling graft.”
But booze wasn’t all that reporters got. Christmas 1978 was a real sight–reporters who came in only for news conferences hung around at Christmastime. A steady stream of aldermen walked in bearing all kinds of gifts, usually bottles of booze. But Alderman Vito Marzullo entered with something else. He placed little white envelopes into the hands of two of the reporters. Someone whispered in broken Italian, omerta, the mafia’s code of silence. I had only been there a few weeks and wanted to fit in, so who was I to judge?
Aldermen brought in scarves, sweaters, and trinkets from their campaigns, such as buttons, belts, shirts, and jackets emblazoned with campaign logos. Every alderman brought in a calendar, but only the calendar from the First Ward’s Fred Roti got nailed to the wall. During renovations of the Palmer House, Roti had managed to procure a color television for the press room to replace a broken set.
Golden had always been a heavy drinker, boozing it up with colleagues like McMullen. He retold one story countless times–police superintendent O.W. Wilson had once dispatched a squad car to pick him and another reporter off the floor of the basement bar at Counselors Row during a late-night drinking binge. The police car drove him all the way to his Glen Ellyn home.
Later he stopped drinking liquor and turned to ingesting a dozen cans of Pepsi each day while savoring the sweet sounds of opera. He became so obsessed with drinking Pepsi that he’d leave a half-empty can on his desk to pick up where he left off the next morning. Bilandic’s press people had delivered the new water cooler–complete with an attached refrigerator–in part to help Golden keep his six-packs chilled. Byrne later tried to top that by offering to install a vending machine, but Golden objected–he bought the cans cheaper on his way to the train. Byrne’s people had even offered to hook up cable TV, back when the media’s coverage of her was still favorable.
Byrne’s aides handed out gate passes and food coupons to ChicagoFest, the new summer festival on Navy Pier. But by December 1980, Christmas was all but over. Canceling Christmas had seemed odd, but it was ordered by McMullen, who at one time was known to have said, “Christmas is for kids, cops, and reporters.” ChicagoFest tickets would later be delivered quietly to a few favorites.
Maybe that’s why most reporters didn’t like Byrne. Her promises of reform brought an end to the comforts of the City Hall beat, where news usually came down in the form of poorly written press releases or infrequent whispered phone calls.
I first met Byrne as a neighborhood reporter for the Southtown Economist in 1978, the same year the biweekly paper became a daily. The broadsheet had a long tradition of following the white community westward; its circulation base resided on the southwest side and in the growing southwest suburbs. Like all first-time candidates, Byrne focused on the small community and weekly press to help establish herself with the public.
She had come to Cezar’s Inn in Burbank to lobby the “Bogan Broads,” a very vocal group against school desegregation. She wore a light brown pageboy wig that seemed to flop as she spoke and a heavy overcoat that looked like it had been yanked from a Salvation Army rack. She clutched a file bursting with press releases, documents, and Byzantine scenarios that she insisted proved her charges of corruption against Bilandic. She politely repeated her campaign pledges to open up city government, to focus on the neighborhoods, to emphasize education, and to be sensitive to the needs of the little people. I wasn’t sure why she brought that message to the southwest side, which was considered a strong machine enclave, but she took nothing for granted.
Byrne was courageous in her campaigning. She frequently came to City Hall, hoping to create headlines by confronting Bilandic. One of his bodyguards, Mike Marano, was on the alert. He shoved her aside forcefully the few times she slipped past his net and got close to the mayor, warning her that she might get arrested. The Bilandic administration’s arrogance gave way to meanness on the part of his supporters. At a 38th Ward rally for the mayor, precinct worker Dick Valentino referred to Byrne as a “mayoral candidate and three-martini ding-a-ling.” Valentino was reportedly set to be named the city’s new revenue director after the election, so he was mighty fearless in pushing around the lady who tried to make headlines. Perhaps that’s why so many reporters started to feel sorry for her.
She sure showed us. One of her first official acts as mayor was to reassign Marano to a night patrol in Kenwood. Then she fired Valentino from his city job. During the campaign, police loyal to the administration had held contests to see who could issue the most parking tickets to McMullen, whose car was frequently parked near Byrne’s Chestnut Street apartment. After her victory, many of these same police officers came to believe they’d been targeted.
She was doing as she had been done to. During the early days of her campaign, she told reporters that Cook County Circuit Clerk Morgan Finley had been pressured by Bilandic’s aides into withdrawing a job offer to McMullen, who had been out of work since the Daily News folded. No one wrote the story.
The Southtown decided to start a City Hall beat in 1978. When I learned that everyone thought the place was too boring to bother with, I volunteered for the job. Byrne had piqued my interest, and I was naive enough to think she might shake things up.
“Following Jane Byrne around is like following a B-52. She just drops bombs all over the place.” –Byrne adviser Bill Griffin after his first week on the job.
Byrne didn’t make news as mayor–she “committed” it. And our process of gathering it became known as the “gang bang.”
The process was unceremonious and crazy. Though our editors loved the sensational headlines, the New York bond companies didn’t. Chicago was cast as an erratic place, wreaking havoc on the city’s bond rating at a time when interest rates were in the double digits. But in the early days Byrne didn’t mind–she intentionally played into our hungry little hands.
These crimes were usually committed at the very same scene: directly in front of the elevator reserved for the mayor’s comings and goings. There was an informal agreement among the reporters that we would gather together as a pack to squeeze the news out of her–God forbid that anyone would follow her downstairs to ask a question out of earshot of the others. The sight was both comical and sad. During the first six months, as many as 65 newspeople would crowd in front of the elevator. When its doors opened in the morning, Byrne would greet a semicircle six bodies deep. The TV cameramen pushed to the front. Radio reporters would be next, holding their microphones over and under the arms of the cameramen. Newspaper reporters brought up the rear, literally hanging on to the backs of the radio reporters, straining to hear what was said. Later we’d force the radio reporters to play their tapes in the press room, so we could listen again. All around us TV producers screamed over their walkie-talkies and bulky cellular phones. “Oh my God,” they’d say with smiles as wide as Lake Michigan. “You won’t believe what she just said.”
Electrical cords snaked through the crowd, and reporters tripped and fell as Byrne walked, talked, and changed the face of the city. As long as she was talking, reporters would trample over the bodies sprawled helplessly on the tiled floor. Eventually, print reporters got tape recorders too, so we could debrief our machines back in the safety of the pressroom. When the crush grew too large, the mayor’s bodyguards installed velour ropes to create an escape path after she’d finished “feeding the animals,” as they came to call it. Sometimes over the course of a day Byrne would enter and exit the elevator a dozen times, and that usually meant a dozen stories.
Things got tricky. Television reporters who aired Byrne’s morning comments at noon found themselves rushing back to City Hall to follow up with the afternoon declarations. Channels Seven and Five both put me on monthly retainers to brief their reporters on any developments that were not exclusive to my newspaper–they were worried about missing a story.
We stopped trying to guess what she planned to do next. Instead of asking leading questions, we took the shotgun approach:
“Hey Janey!” a reporter would blurt out. “What’s new?”
“What’s new?” Byrne would parrot with a sly grin. She’d glance at her bodyguards, her press secretary, her chief of staff, and her aides, the contingent that followed her wherever she went. “I’ll tell you what’s new,” she’d declare. Then it would start. “Today I plan to review the city’s personnel,” she’d say unenthusiastically.
“You mean a shake-up?” another reporter would scream back.
“I plan to weed out those people who are not working,” she’d continue. “Get this place in tip-top shape.”
Though she had never used the term “shake-up,” that would be the key word in everyone’s story.
There were inconsistencies. Promotions became demotions. You had to be careful. One of the most notorious gaffes occurred when a lone TV reporter bumped into her on the road. In an exclusive whisper, he learned that Joe DiLeonardi, the acting police superintendent, would soon be named Chicago’s top cop. He quickly reported the item, but when other reporters confronted her with the story, Byrne innocently replied, “I didn’t say DiLeonardi. It might be someone else.”
Radio reporters went on the air with her comments minutes after she made them. The TV people followed with heavily promoted spots. Print reporters lagged behind. We typed the stories as fast as we could, and then dictated them to “rewrite.” Sometimes we had the copy delivered by express messenger. Our editors were waiting: City Hall news was a priority.
The Southtown’s offices were at least ten miles from the Loop, so I would drive the copy over on my way home. I’d type my stories on optical character recognition paper; the words could then be scanned into a computer, printed, and laid out on dummy sheets. Back at the office, reporters used Rockwell word processors, and I persuaded my editor to have one installed at the City Hall press room. With a 300 baud modem, I could send my stories as soon as they were done.
That technology led the Southtown to follow the lead of the Tribune and Sun-Times. We published an early morning “extra” called the Commuter Edition, which hit the street hours before the regular paper. Our readers could then more closely follow the evolution of Byrne’s news.
The Tribune and Sun-Times printed three times each day. Reporters had a morning deadline at 11 that would feed stories into the afternoon editions–the Tribune’s Green Streak and the Sun-Times’s Red Streak. Their next deadline was around 8:30 in the evening, and the final deadline was as late as midnight. McMullen coached Byrne on this news-making frenzy because he understood the system. Stories would often break minutes before each deadline, a routine the print reporters came to regard as McMullen’s way of “busting our nuts,” forcing us to complete stories under maximum pressure.
The Tribune was the next to install computers in the press room, and the City News Bureau soon followed. Both operations added an additional reporter to the City Hall beat. Soon Tandy TRS 80s, affectionately called “Trash 80s,” started popping up on every desk.
Golden was the last holdout. He said he hated computers–he preferred the gentle tapping of typewriter keys.”Tooo…daaaaay…Maaa…yoooor…Jaaaane… Byrnnnnnnne…” He’d look around the room and add for the entertainment of those listening, “the despicable whoooore! Aaaarrgh! Aaaarrgh! Aaaarrgh!”
Everyone in the room would stop and laugh too. News swung wildly from budgets to public policy. Eventually, though, we all settled on the personalities.
After the battle lines were drawn between Byrne and the reporters, many aldermen shuddered at the thought of entering the press room. The few who did were either Byrne haters or had been sent in by Byrne to spy on us. Fred Roti was there every day, complaining about Byrne when he was an outsider and lobbying for her when he was back in control. He was friendly, a surprising trait for a politician who reportedly had mob ties. His campaign buttons boasted “I’m a Roti Rooter,” and his relatives held jobs at almost every level of government. Roti played an important role in the City Council. As First Ward alderman, he was the first to vote on every major issue.
You only needed to know three things in order to serve as an alderman. First, you had to understand enough English to recognize your name during roll calls. Second, you had to know how to count up to your ward number during votes. And third, you had to know how Roti voted. It was a simple system that produced massive, lopsided votes in the machine’s favor.
Eloise Barden, alderman of the 16th Ward, appeared to have all the credentials. But during one particularly confusing vote, as Byrne was slipping through a tax increase, Barden mistakenly voted “No.” Now in control of the council, Byrne slammed her gavel on the podium and brought the proceedings to a halt. The noisy council came to a dead silence. Byrne smiled and said politely, “Alderman Barden, I think you meant to vote ‘yes.'”
Well, hearing it from Byrne wasn’t good enough, and Barden got even more confused as opposing players started yelling at her about how to vote.
“Wait a minute,” Barden protested. “I didn’t ask you how to vote. I asked you how Roti voted.”
When Roti came into the press room, he’d always put his arm around reporters peering at their stories. Sometimes we nudged him away. Other times we let him read. Then, as expected, we’d receive a phone call from Byrne’s press office, which had 18 employees, compared to the 2-member staff that worked under Celesta Jurkovich. Sometimes Byrne made the call herself.
“Press room,” I once answered.
“Press room,” the soft voice said on the other end, “it’s me.”
“Me?” I asked. “Who’s me?”
“Me!” the voice insisted. “Me!”
I paused. “Mayor?”
“Who’d you think it was?”
“I don’t know, Mayor. We get a lot of strange calls here.”
“I’m sure you do. Who’s down there with you?”
“Davis, Golden, Spiel–”
“Tell everyone to come up to my office. I have a story for them.”
With 18 people on her press staff, Byrne still liked to make the call herself. That was her style.
Once she wised up, things changed. When she stopped giving us news, we had to create it, so we turned our efforts to manipulating the aldermen.
“Hey, Madrzyk,” one reporter called out. “What’s happening today? We need some news.”
John Madrzyk, the alderman of the 13th Ward, just shrugged. “Everything’s quiet.” Madrzyk wouldn’t say anything without first consulting his boss, the powerful Democratic house leader Michael J. Madigan.
The reporter winked at me and told Madrzyk to sit down. “Listen, you can be a hero. You can put together an ordinance that raises the drinking age from 18 to 21 in Chicago for beer and wine. People will love you.”
Madrzyk was hesitant at first, but he listened as the reporter explained how much play the story would get. “How can I do that?” he finally asked.
“Well, the legislature has broadened Chicago’s home-rule powers. You can do it.”
Madrzyk nodded. “Home-rule powers? Let me think about it.”
When he later returned showing interest, we handed him a draft of an ordinance that we had composed ourselves. “Take this and put in some whereases and whatsfors and who cares, and just introduce it.”
At the next council meeting, using the city’s new home-rule powers, Madrzyk led the vote to raise the city’s drinking age. And after the meeting Roti walked into the press room shaking his head. Madrzyk followed close behind.
“I can’t believe you guys did this to John,” Roti said.
“Hey, look at the headlines he got,” the reporter protested. “Madrzyk’s a hero.”
We all looked away. Years later both Roti and Madrzyk would wind up in jail. The reporter went on to win awards.
Among the other ordinances influenced or written by reporters during those years was one banning tinted windshields on cars.
“I am not a vengeful woman. I am not a vindictive woman. That’s something they always say about women, but never men.” –Byrne during one of her press conferences.
Byrne had said she could never forgive Roti, Vrdolyak, or Ed Burke, the three aldermen she fingered during her campaign as the “cabal of evil men” working to block her election. So at first she turned to a troika of quickly anointed reformers to guide her legislation through the City Council: 44th Ward alderman Martin Oberman, the longtime lakefront liberal; 36th Ward alderman John Aiello, who had treated her kindly during the primary; and 23rd Ward alderman William Lipinski, who luckily happened to be my first political contact when I was hired by the Southtown in 1977.
As a cub reporter, I was fed tips by Lipinski about plans to open a mail processing facility in Archer Heights. With this information I was able to transform that story into a community crusade. In the southwest-side lexicon, “post office” equaled “blacks,” but my editors would only let me write about the dangers that large trucks posed to the streets and to the children of the hamlet that hugged Archer Avenue. Racial politics had long dictated newspaper policies, and it wasn’t until many years later that the Southtown actually published a photo of a black man on its front page–unavoidably because he happened to be the newly appointed principal of a local school.
Lipinski used the Archer Heights crusade to strengthen his political organization. He remembered me when Byrne made him one of her floor leaders. In the bright orange corduroy suit that he always wore to City Council meetings, he was hard to forget. Byrne handed the reins over to the Lipinski trio with only one mandate: Screw Vrdolyak and screw Burke. Roti was alleged to have mob ties, so she left him alone.
If the Lipinski trio had stayed focused on that directive, things might have gone smoothly for years to come. But Byrne sensed that her new floor leaders were a little too cozy with young Daley–she feared they had another agenda. Years of training and instinct wouldn’t allow them to turn away from Little Richie, the messiah of the Democratic machine.
In the summer of her first year, the Lipinski trio fumbled through a simple effort to strip Vrdolyak’s brother Victor of his job as a deputy police superintendent. Byrne could have dumped him quietly, but she couldn’t resist the spectacle of a public flogging.
Lipinski was no match for the quick-witted Vrdolyak. When Aiello claimed Vrdolyak’s objections had missed the point–he said they weren’t appropriate to the “gender” of the debate–Vrdolyak stood up, and to the laughter of the council’s members and the gallery he informed Aiello, “Gender? Gender? I taught you politics, now I’ll teach you a little English. It’s germane!”
Byrne stormed out of the meeting. Stripping a job from Vrdolyak’s kin had brought her own public flogging.
The new mayor scheduled at least one City Council meeting each week–it was the only way she could take over the process of running the city and oversee the awarding of jobs and contracts. The Lipinski trio would always gather in Byrne’s fifth-floor office one hour before the meetings were set to start. They would work their way through the pack of reporters in the hallway, past the guard’s desk, through a security system, past a second guard, and into the mayor’s inner sanctum. One day in August 1979, I saw the trio walk into an elevator bound for the fifth floor. Later I got a frantic call from Lipinski.
“Can you come up here?” he whispered. He sounded shaken. After running upstairs, hoping for an exclusive from Byrne’s council leaders, I found Lipinski, Oberman, and Aiello slumped in chairs under a row of pictures showing all but one of the city’s past mayors. (Bilandic’s picture didn’t go up until the middle of Byrne’s term, when she made sure she had picked the worst possible photo.)
Lipinski rolled his eyes and nodded toward the security entrance. The bodyguards, who had so often stepped aside for the trio, had now been ordered to keep them out. When Byrne stepped out of the office, she was followed by the “cabal of evil men” walking like ducks behind their mother.
“From now on, alderman,” Byrne told Lipinski, “Vrdolyak is my floor leader, and you’ll take orders from him.”
Vrdolyak smiled, walking with that fake John Wayne strut that characterized his manner during the Harold Washington years. He pointed at Lipinski. “Remember what she said. You’ll take orders from me now, not the Grape.”
Richard J. Daley had built an empire that fed his associates, friends, and family. But behind his back, many still referred to Richie as “the old man’s little grape.” Following Vrdolyak out the door were Burke, Roti, and Roti’s boss, First Ward committeeman John D’Arco, who had a smoldering stogie dancing on his lower lip. A former tomato peddler, D’Arco had convinced Byrne that all Vrdolyak wanted was power–Daley wanted her job.
So began the Vrdolyak 44. Lipinski, Oberman, and Aiello were left with only three other reliable allies in the council. They were: Madrzyk; Patrick Huels, alderman of Daley’s home ward, the 11th; and Mike Sheahan, alderman of the 19th Ward, which was sometimes referred to as “Little Bridgeport” because of the preponderance of residents with city jobs. There were other sympathizers–like Richard J. Daley’s cousin, 18th Ward committeeman John Daley–but few additional council votes. The City Hall beat began to get ugly, and Jay McMullen ended up telling everyone he was going to put me “away.” Certainly the stories Byrne gave us made great headlines. But the stories she tried to hide were the ones people seemed most interested in reading.
Byrne and I never had a problem until she and Daley had a problem. At first few were interested in insider political stories–who was getting fired and who wasn’t. But then Daley and Lipinski turned to the Southtown, their community’s newspaper.
Longtime Daley precinct captains, who held hundreds of high-paying city jobs, were getting demoted or fired. Careers were being destroyed. Everything the Daleys had done to everyone else in the city was finally coming home to roost, and the south-side Irish didn’t like it one bit. But Byrne was telling the truth. Under Old Man Daley and Bilandic, the machine’s patronage army had grown astronomically.
In the summer of 1979, I had convinced my editors to allow me to publish a Sunday column called “The Grapevine.” It featured a gossip-style format, though it appeared on the op-ed page. No one had really thought about focusing exclusively on political gossip as news. Kup at the Sun-Times and Maggie Daly and Aaron Gold at the Tribune included some political items, but only a few. “The Grapevine” was all about political intrigue. I included all the tidbits that initially were too small to turn into stories–some of the items could have been larger stories if City Hall wasn’t already churning out too many stories. Most of us in the press room were turning in five stories a day.
I started to receive tips from Daley and his political outcasts. The man driving these items was former Chicago cop Jeremiah Joyce, who had partnered with another Daley ally, Tim Degnan, in the Illinois Senate. My column headlined “Vrdolyak, Burke Back in the Saddle” was quickly picked up on by Sun-Times political writer Basil Talbott. Several weeks later, Daley called to say that Byrne was planning to run Roman Pucinski against Morgan Finley for clerk of the circuit court. It seemed plausible. During the campaign Byrne had shared the same story with me, claiming Finley had reneged on that job offer to McMullen. Now, as mayor, she denied it.
After making a few phone calls, I published six paragraphs detailing the story of Pucinski’s run in “The Grapevine.” The rest of the column dealt with how key Daley aides were being systematically dumped from City Hall jobs and how Byrne had targeted the southwest side of the city, the land of Lipinski, Daley, Madigan, and Sheahan. That part of town happened to be home to my paper’s readers.
Byrne began to take notice of “The Grapevine,” dispatching two of her bodyguards to Ford City every Saturday night to pick up copies of the Sunday paper. The Finley item angered her, but it enraged McMullen, who called me at the press room the next day. He was ranting–I could hardly make out his words. Nobody would believe this, I thought, waving to Golden, who in turn waved to Davis. They each picked up an extension and listened to McMullen scream. He was especially angry that the column implied he was using his wife to get back at Finley.
“If you print any more fucking lies in your fucking column,” McMullen warned before hanging up, “I’m not only going to call your fucking editor, but I am going to punch you in your fucking nose.”
At first, I didn’t think of it as a story. For the other reporters, it was a hootenanny.
“Fuck him,” Spielman yelled.
“Go for it,” Davis offered.
“The despicable whooorrreeee,” Golden cackled. “Aaaargh! Aaaargh! Aaaargh!”
I dutifully reported McMullen’s quote, without the expletives, in my next column on September 23. And on Monday morning, Byrne promptly called a press conference. She denounced me by name and declared that she would “never ever” speak to me again.
After the Vrdolyak takeover, Byrne’s press conferences had become more infrequent, and the frenzied pace quieted down. But the “snit” rejuvenated the public’s interest, and WLUP offered me a radio show. Joel Weisman invited me on WTTW’s Chicago Week in Review, where I made the somewhat intemperate comment, “Well, Joel, once again the city’s taxpayers are going to get raped by Jane Byrne.” Complaints from McMullen kept me off the show until after Harold Washington’s election.
“The Grapevine” picked up steam, as every alderman seemed to call me with an ax to grind. Several Byrne allies even hoped items in my column could help to change her mind on various issues. When rumors first surfaced that the White Sox might move out of town, Byrne answered a reporter’s question by snapping, “Why don’t you have a telephone conference with Hanania, and maybe he can buy the White Sox?” Some reporters looked at me with scorn. By criticizing Byrne, they said, I had ruined a good thing.
The Byrne news machine began to dry out. She took to calling a handful of reporters secretly and offering them exclusives. Police had cleared the fifth floor of reporters and issued a ban preventing us from standing by the elevators, sitting in her outer office, or waiting for her to come and go. If I was standing nearby, her bodyguards would beg me to move away, because, they said, I would ruin her day and she would make their lives miserable.
Some reporters were concerned that I was costing them stories. At a press conference that included such bigwigs as Jim Thompson and Dan Rostenkowski, Byrne announced she was reappropriating billions of dollars earmarked for the long proposed Crosstown Expressway. The move was a clear shot at Daley and his southwest-side rebels, which made it a big story for me. I asked the mayor how she planned to explain the decision to voters on the southwest side, and she replied curtly, “By giving them the truth. The truth. Do you know what that is?” A TV reporter nudged me from behind my second-row seat and whispered that I should shut up. Crawford, Davis, and Cameron, who all sat in the front row, scowled. Byrne smiled.
As I walked out of the mayor’s office and into the hallway, a woman suddenly screamed, “Who told you I was going to cut that funding?” I turned around to find Byrne waving a copy of my most recent Sunday column, which reported that she was planning to trim the city’s contribution to a special school for invalid children. “Who told you that?”
Rostenkowski was aghast, Thompson scratched his head, and the rest of the congressional delegation cowered.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
Byrne’s chief bodyguards, Mike Graney and Rory O’Connor, grabbed my arms and lifted me off the tile floor. They pushed me into the mayor’s private elevator, where the three of us stood sandwiched together, facing Byrne. Graney pulled the emergency stop, halting the elevator between floors.
“Who said that?” she demanded.
It wasn’t a secret. “Well, Bob Kellam [the 18th Ward alderman] says you told him…”
“He didn’t understand,” she replied, cutting me off. “I want you to take this all down.” She then launched into a detailed explanation of her side of the story. When she was finished, she snapped, “I don’t want that in the newspaper. I want it in your column. Let’s see if you print it.”
I tried to protest, saying her aides had refused to respond to my requests; I was forced to publish only what I could confirm. Graney laughed and switched the elevator back on. He pushed me out into the third-floor hallway.
The following year I found myself at odds with Byrne again–this time over Graney, whom she adored. Graney was a 19th Ward cop who had worked for Bilandic until he realized that Byrne was going to win. He quit Bilandic’s detail, and days before the general election he showed up as Byrne’s chief bodyguard. A political trickster had tipped me off that Graney had been granted a choice concession contract at ChicagoFest. He was operating Anna’s Fried Dough at Navy Pier–the first booth past the entrance. Every time Byrne went to ChicagoFest she would pause at Anna’s Fried Dough, eat one of the large samplers, and call it the best tasting treat at the festival. I went there and said hello to Graney, who turned white.
Cook County state’s attorney Bernard Carey looked into the awarding of the contract, but the investigation was called off when Daley took over the state’s attorney office that November. Though Byrne had once vowed to cancel the festival, she renamed it “Mayor Byrne’s ChicagoFest” in 1980. The press speculated that Daley didn’t want to hurt Graney, who was a friend of Joyce’s. And by then I was beginning to understand what Lipinski would often lament: “The Daleys are great friends when they’re out of power. But once in, you never see them.”
When word got out that Daley was planning to run for a countywide office in the 1980 March Democratic primary, Byrne was frantic to stop him. She suspected he was planning to challenge Carey, so she pushed for Burke to run too. Daley recognized that if he announced first, he could cast Burke as Byrne’s puppet, a spoiler who reporters already knew was not enthusiastic about the job of state’s attorney.
So Daley decided to exploit Byrne’s belief that everything I put into my column reflected his strategy. Daley had Huels call me up and say, “Listen, this is an exclusive for you. It’s very important, but you can’t quote me. All right?”
“Sure. What is it?” I asked.
“Rich is running for clerk of the circuit court. He can’t win as state’s attorney but we can win as circuit clerk.”
“Are you sure, Pat? That’s unbelievable. All your people are saying it’s state’s attorney. Lipinski, Sheahan…”
“Listen. I’m telling you. Would I lie to you? This is just for you. No one else.”
At a fund-raiser that night at the Martinique, Daley put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You’ve got the scoop on the biggest story of the year.”
I called Lipinski, Oberman, Sheahan, and everyone else I could think of–they all said the word was out that Daley was thinking of running for circuit clerk. Daley then called to reassure me, but he asked that he not be quoted.
OK, I thought, why would they lie to me? I was boxed in. Days before his scheduled press conference, I bannered my column with this headline: “Daley to run for circuit clerk.” As it turned out, Huels had given the same story to Talbott at the Sun-Times. He ran it too.
Burke was unsure and decided to hold off until after Daley’s announcement. That’s what Joyce and Daley had wanted all along.
Talbott and I stood on the sidelines at Daley’s press conference. Spielman nudged me. “They used you!” she said.
I knew I was in trouble when Daley began his speech by praising me. Then he announced for state’s attorney.
Burke lost to Daley in the primary, but he was the only politician who seemed to have some sense of sanity. He shrugged things off and tried to get along with everyone. Byrne could have learned from him. At a press conference days before the March primary, she let loose a volley of invective, not only against me but also the Tribune’s David Axelrod, who had started to pick up on stories illustrating her vindictiveness. She attacked Axelrod and then called me “scum.” The next day a Tribune editorial began “Here we go again!”
Three of Byrne’s aides tried to help her get out of the mess. Paul McGrath was a former reporter who had helped Byrne and then served as her chief of staff until she replaced him with Bill Griffin while McGrath was away at a government-policy school. McGrath’s girlfriend, Karen Conner, was the director of special events. And Frank Santoro was Byrne’s patronage chief. They asked me to come to a meeting in Conner’s office.
With my back to the door, I listened to them tell me I wasn’t being fair. I said I was interested in reporting news. When Byrne was a candidate, she talked to me all the time. When she became mayor, she forgot the little people, I said. I listened to people who talked to me.
They all seemed shocked, though Conner and I were friends. Santoro then proposed to feed me exclusive stories about the “good things” that Byrne was doing. I told them I would publish those stories–a headline was a headline. But I would go on listening to others.
Suddenly the double doors to Conner’s office opened with a crash, slamming against the walls. Byrne, flanked by Graney and O’Connor, stepped into the office wagging her finger.
“A secret little meeting. I wasn’t invited. What’s going on?”
McGrath immediately turned and pointed at me. Santoro and Conner tried to persuade Byrne that they were simply trying to get me to print “the other side.” Within months all three were on their way out or already gone.
Byrne was a vindictive mayor, though all mayors have been vindictive in their own ways. The difference was that Byrne wanted everyone to know. When asked about her role in punishing disloyal workers or political foes, she would raise her eyebrows and smile.
Some observers charged the press with crossing every line–nothing was sacred. They claimed we hadn’t applied the same standards to Bilandic. That criticism is certainly true, but for at least the next decade those standards became the norm. They were used to evaluate the administrations of Washington, Sawyer, and even Daley in the early years.
Byrne’s animus against me eventually spread to include other reporters. She threatened to ban Bob Davis from the City Hall press room over a story that another reporter at his paper had written. The threat became news. When reporters gathered around Davis in the press room, lapping up his quotes, McMullen called to ask if he was enjoying the limelight.
She remained unrepentant despite the outcry that followed her appointment of two white women and a political crony to the CHA board. When Fran Spielman asked her to respond to the criticism, Byrne waited until the other reporters had caught up to them and Spielman had to repeat her question. The mayor replied, “I think…I think…I think your bleach job is beautiful.”
When Byrne blamed me for the resignation of her press secretary, Michael Sneed, she publicly waved a sheet of paper that she alleged was my resume. She claimed I had asked her for a job one week after she won the primary. While touring Navy Pier’s Ethnic Folk Festival, Byrne met my mother, who was wearing a Palestinian gown. Mom got excited and told Byrne, “I don’t know why my son doesn’t like you. I think you are fantastic.” Later, instead of responding to my query on a ChicagoFest-related scandal, Byrne leaned across a live microphone and said, “Why don’t I tell the reporters about the hot tip your mother gave me about you?”
She was angry when I reported she had fired a woman she suspected was having an affair with Griffin. The affair didn’t exist but that didn’t matter. And when I discovered that Byrne had given her husband’s former maid a job running a fifth-floor copier, her aides threatened to have me removed from the press room. No wonder she ended up swimming in a sea of Daley loyalists all trying to undermine her programs.
Walking between the press room and the City Council chambers, Byrne overheard a city employee remark on her recent facelift. “It doesn’t look that great to me,” the woman blurted out with laughter that caught the mayor’s ear.
Byrne stopped, turned around, and looked directly at the woman. She then continued into the council chambers. As the opening prayer was being offered, Byrne summoned city clerk Walter Kozubowski to her side. The next day we learned that the woman had been moved to a place where she would never see Byrne’s face again. She had been given a desk in the damp and dusty City Hall basement. Many weeks later the woman quietly returned to her old job after personally apologizing to the mayor.
Byrne’s vindictiveness became run-of-the-mill and lost its newsworthiness. Firing someone simply for being a Daley ally became nothing new, though the firings destroyed many lives and careers.
Byrne lost her reelection bid to Harold Washington when Daley split the city’s white vote in the 1983 primary. That might have been Daley’s final act of revenge against Byrne. The tensions between the new mayor and the City Hall press room continued, though the focus changed from personalities to racial politics. Washington attacked Vrdolyak and the “white dominated news media” that covered his administration, and he argued that reporters lacked an understanding of the “‘hood.” But we didn’t cover the ‘hood. We covered City Hall.
When Richie Daley and his south-side strategists stumbled back into power, City Hall reporting quieted down. The new Mayor Daley did everything that Byrne was criticized for, but people had grown tired of the confrontations. Daley has eagerly tried to embrace calm, and the level of news excitement has dropped dramatically.
Having covered every mayor from 1978 to 1992, I can honestly say that reporters treated Byrne the worst. But there was a time during Daley’s first few years when we’d sit around bored and reminisce longingly about the “good old days.” Not the days of his father’s administration but those brief four years when a Chicago mayor knew how to make real news.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 1979 photo by Mike Tappin; Harry Golden photo by Bill Stamets; misc. Bryne photo copyright Steven M. Leonard; misc. photo Chicago Sun-Times-James Kleptisch; misc. photo by Bill Stamets; Golden’s City Hall press room Christmas list; misc. February 1981 uncredited photo.