By Michael Miner
Before Ken Bode began covering presidential politics, he helped re-create them. Bode worked for the Eugene McCarthy campaign in early 1968, but he spent most of the summer teaching in London. Back in the States just in time for the Democratic Convention, he walked into McCarthy’s Chicago headquarters. “Are you Sam Brown?” someone asked him.
Sam Brown was a political organizer and antiwar leader with a very high profile back then. If McCarthy’s people don’t know me from him, Bode thought, McCarthy’s in a lot of trouble. He spotted George McGovern. The senator from South Dakota had become a candidate for president after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Bode had known McGovern since Bode was president of the student body at the University of South Dakota.
“Can you help me?” McGovern said. So while mayhem reigned on the streets of Chicago, Bode worked the convention as McGovern’s floor coordinator. “One of the most brilliant guys I ever met,” recalls a McGovern volunteer. “He seemed to know the names and backgrounds and families and political quirks of all 3,333 delegates. I was absolutely floored at how smart he was.”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who’d sat out the primaries, was nominated by all the unelected delegates who were party regulars. But after Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in November, the Democratic Party named McGovern to head a commission to study delegate selection. McGovern made Bode his research director.
The next four years saw a political sea change. Thanks to the McGovern Commission the party overhauled its selection process. And in 1972 McGovern would be nominated, Mayor Daley, the host of the ’68 convention, wouldn’t even be able to seat his delegation, and Bode would have a national reputation.
By ’71 he’d created the Center for Political Reform to help drag state parties into compliance with the new rules–by suing them if necessary. News clippings from the period find Bode warning in the New Republic that “reform is on the verge of turning sour,” being accused by an assistant to the Democratic Party chairman of plotting to create a third party, and being described by the New York Times as a “bete noir” to the party’s national committee.
The New York Times Magazine reflected on the new rules Bode did so much to impose on the party. They required, in effect, minority quotas at the 1972 convention. “As [Bode] tells it, he had on his staff a ‘maniacal counter’ who counted the number of blacks and young people and women in the 1968 convention and found that the totals ranged from ‘inadequate to invisible.’… So, to the reforms–which meant that henceforward, roughly half the delegates would have to be women, 10 per cent would have to be black, and nearly a third would have to be under 30.
“Observers over 30 who could recall when every New York City slate had its Irishman, Italian and Jew did not know whether to laugh or sigh….The new guidelines put us on notice that in order to build a better Democratic party, the primary criteria for political representation must be age, sex and race.”
Historians can decide whether the reforms Bode helped fashion proved on balance good. The reformed Democratic Party elected one president, Jimmy Carter, in the next five elections. Quotas and identity politics are still very much with us, and so is incessant, primary-driven, every-man-for-himself presidential campaigning. It was betokened by a five-part PBS series Bode created in 1995, a year before the fact: The Challengers ’96.
After 1972 Bode moved into political journalism full-time, sojourning at the New Republic, at NBC News, at CNN, and at PBS’s Washington Week in Review, where he’s been moderator since 1994. It’s been an idyllic life full of honors and changing seasons: since 1989 he and his family have lived in a big old house in Greencastle, Indiana, while he’s created and directed the Center for Contemporary Media of DePauw University and taught politics and media there. He’s giving up DePauw, but not the weekly TV show in Washington, to succeed Michael Janeway January 1 as dean of the Medill School of Journalism. Until he arrives the acting dean will be Abe Peck, chair of the magazine program, who spent the ’68 convention running the underground paper the Seed.
“I had no reason to want to leave,” Bode told me. But five years before asking him to be dean, Medill had offered him a job running its broadcasting program. Bode had to say no then for family reasons, but he was tempted. For one thing, he was born on the southeast side and lived in Chicago the first ten years of his life. For another, he realized that “I would like to teach in a school for professional journalists as opposed to a liberal arts college, where I was. I am a professional journalist, and have been for over 25 years.” The second time around, Bode was free to accept.
Many professional journalists have qualms about journalism schools. Some go so far as to argue that any other kind of education is more useful to a would-be journalist, who can learn the trade on the job. Bode is not one of these.
“At a time when journalism is in a combination of a financial squeeze almost all the way across the board and under pressure from the Murdochs of the world, there’s a special point to a journalism education–to a place that teaches ethics and good business practices and so forth.”
What sort of pressure from the Murdochs? I asked. Moral pressure?
“Newt says the tax bill is a moral imperative,” Bode replied. “I save my moral imperatives for higher things. But it’s a question of standards, the quality of the work, whether you accept one-source stories, whether you re-create the news on television, the pressure Hard Copy adjacent to the local news puts on the credibility of all of our newscasts.”
If the president of Northwestern University, Henry Bienen, was after star power, he found it in Bode. “The apprehension of a lot of people,” a Medill professor told me, “is that Bienen wants someone who can go to lunch a lot and has high recognition and can be on TV every week.” Why that should be an apprehension isn’t clear, except that a dean waving the Medill flag in public is not at his desk being dean.
“I find it amusing,” said Medill professor Donna Leff, a cochair of the search committee. “If we’d appointed someone on the list who was purely academic, who could be regarded as a communications theorist, they’d say, ‘Why’d you send us a pointy-headed theorist?’ Deans travel. We have a dean [at NU] who spends a day a week on research–his appointment was contingent on that. What does this dean [Bode] do? This dean does journalism! What an appropriate thing for a dean to do.
“It’s my belief that Ken will be giving Medill full-time. To do a show once a week is not a limitation. I also believe that to envision someone at work only when they’re sitting in an office at a particular place is not 90s. You can’t envision somebody in a really narrow 1970s frame–it’s not right.”
“For the last eight years,” Bode told me, “I’ve done both–either CNN and DePauw or Washington Week in Review and DePauw. Last year I did two documentaries for CNN, all the anchor-booth analysis [of the conventions], plus Washington Week in Review and DePauw. What you do is you have people in place at both ends who know what your responsibilities are and can help you.”
Leff reminded me of Medill’s Washington program–four professors, adjuncts, and graduate students running a news service for clients across the country. “They feel like an outpost,” she said. They’ll be “tickled” to have the dean in town every week.
Years ago, I mentioned to Leff, Bode was in politics up to his eyebrows. Then he crossed over. That didn’t bother her in the slightest–not that it bothers me either. “The more you know about the real world the better off you are,” Leff said. “Yes, if somebody’s a committed archconservative or flaming radical who goes straight to the news pages you could have a problem.”
So you make a distinction between a Ken Bode and a Susan Molinari, the Republican congresswoman who’s jumping to CBS? “I definitely draw a distinction,” Leff said. “Maybe not. Let’s see what kind of journalist Susan Molinari is going to be. We know what kind of journalist Ken is.”
The McGovern volunteer, who went on to work with Bode on the McGovern Commission, recalls him as “highly focused and abrupt. A lot of people disliked him because they found him to be excessively abrupt.” Adlai Stevenson III was one. That’s because Bode “thought Adlai was fatuous and weak and didn’t mind letting him know it.”
A Medill professor described Bode’s first meeting with the faculty. “He was actually kind of sweet, very earnest, sort of a patient listener. Some people were a little nervous meeting him. TV does that to people.”
Beam Up Scotty?
Ever since Jerome Holtzman stopped writing Tribune columns insisting that Nellie Fox belongs in the Hall of Fame, the most notable idee fixe in local journalism has been Sam Smith’s.
Holtzman was more fun to read than Smith because he got me more lathered up. Not because of Fox per se–the hall was built for singles hitters with .288 lifetime batting averages–but because Holtzman never stopped insisting that a cruel injustice had been done Fox in 1985 when his 74.7 percent Hall of Fame vote wasn’t rounded up to the requisite 75 percent. (Fox finally got into the hall this year, making the injustice moot.)
Holtzman’s mathematical illogic was what made his crusade so riveting. Often it’s OK to round off numbers. But sometimes it’s not, and here it clearly wasn’t. You don’t meet a standard by coming close. The first seven-foot high jumper didn’t clear six eleven and three-quarters. The first four-minute miler didn’t run the mile in four minutes and two-tenths of a second.
Even if Smith’s been wrong he’s at least been logical, which makes his cause marginally duller than Holtzman’s. What Smith has done in the Tribune is dedicate years of his life to trying to run my favorite Chicago Bull out of town.
The Bulls-Jazz series barely got going before Smith was back on the case.
Smith, June 3: “Scottie Pippen was brilliant Sunday in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, if typically overshadowed by some Michael Jordan heroics…. So it’s time to trade him.”
Smith, May 8: “That’s the remedy the Bulls are looking at now: Trade Pippen while he still has value.”
Smith, July 15, 1996: “So this would be the scenario. Jordan finishes his career after one more season…. The Bulls then trade Scottie Pippen.”
Smith, November 3, 1995: “The acquisition of Dennis Rodman…figures to make the Bulls at least the co-favorites to get to the NBA Finals this season. Which is why it’s time to trade Scottie Pippen.”
Smith, May 21, 1995: “Believe Jordan is sincere when he says the Bulls should retain Pippen. But believe just as strongly that Pippen will not be a Bull next season. Which is what’s best for the Bulls and the path the Bulls should take.”
Smith, November 23, 1994: “Trade Scottie! It’s still the smart thing to do.”
Smith, June 30, 1994: “Now the trouble really begins for the Bulls. That’s if they don’t trade Scottie Pippen soon.”
Smith, December 7, 1993: “Trade Horace Grant? Forget it. It’s a stupid idea. What the Bulls ought to do is trade Scottie Pippen.”
“I like Pippen,” says Smith. “I’ve never written trade Steve Kerr or Jud Buechler. The reason you trade someone is he has exceptional value.”
I don’t mind Smith’s crusade; telling Jerry Krause what to do might be the best way of making sure he doesn’t do it. I’m simply not his kind of pragmatist. Perpetuated glory is wonderful, but so is crumbled and vanished glory. Tourists pour into Rome to contemplate the Colosseum, not an Italian army barracks.
“I get along good with Scottie,” Smith said. “I almost did a book with him last year. I’ve continued to have a good enough relationship with him that he chose to ask me to work on it with him. I didn’t seek him out–he sought me out.” The book project fell through, Smith said, because Pippen wasn’t vain enough to stay interested in it.
What happened with the Bulls over the last couple of years is so remarkable it’s practically unheard of. Basketball fans wished that things could be again the way they used to be–and then they were. (Don’t expect that again in your lifetime.) We forget that three years ago Michael Jordan was gone, the Bulls were mediocre, and Pippen was feeling underpaid, underappreciated, and generally put upon. “There have been times he’s told me, ‘I wouldn’t mind if I were traded,'” Smith says. “Now he talks about wanting to stay. But at the same time he wants to be paid a substantial amount of money. I can see what’ll happen. He’ll get to the end of his contract next year, and the Bulls won’t pay him, and he’ll have nowhere to go–other teams will have their salary caps filled up. And he’ll come back to the Bulls angry. The Bulls have basically said they’re going to take care of Jordan. They’ve never said they’ll take care of Pippen. Every franchise takes care of one guy, and he’s the second guy.”
Jordan has made it clear he wants Pippen around next season. “Michael’s looking for one year,” Smith says. “He doesn’t care about the future of the Bulls. If you’re running a business you can’t look at it that way.
“In the end I don’t think they’ll be able to trade Pippen. He’s not valued as well around the league as he is here. He’s valued as a supplementary player to Jordan. And he’s 32 years old. He’s more vulnerable to breaking down. If the Bulls end up with him, I think in a year people will be saying, ‘Yeah, Reinsdorf should have traded him.'”
Which Smith started saying four years and two championships ago.
8If the Bulls-Jazz series made you green around the gills, this may be why: according to the Sun-Times’s handy “Charting the lead” diagram of every game, the Bulls constantly trailed in it. Throw out the two routs–the second and third games, each team winning one. The Bulls led in the four squeakers 22 percent of the time. The Bulls were actually ahead just 13 percent of the time in the three squeakers they won, and for only 10 of the 96 minutes of the two games that closed out their championship. The Utah players will remember this as a series they lost but dominated–which is why Jerry Reinsdorf probably didn’t wonder for long whether to break up a team that’s invincible.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ken Bode photo/ uncredited.