On Top of the Tribune

We had a perfect relationship with Jim Squires. (1) We didn’t work for him. (2) He returned our calls. Almost always, Squires had plenty to say on whatever dubious thing we thought the Chicago Tribune was up to now. We’ll miss Jim Squires a lot.

On the other hand, the paper’s new editor is fascinating.

Jack Fuller, one of his associates observed, “is a guy with a profoundly integrated vision of the world where everything makes sense.” That’s not necessarily the ideal psyche for an editor; a newspaper that overimposes order on a messy and highly random world is not only false to it but likely to be pretty dull. But the Tribune is not Fuller’s primary arena for pondering life’s deeper structural congruities. When most of us cling greedily to sleep, Fuller is up at daybreak writing novels.

Squires thinks he has a couple of novels in him he might now try to get out. Back in the 70s, when Jim Hoge was editing the Sun-Times, he took a leave to try to write a political satire. He couldn’t. In other words, editors are no different from the rest of us in suffering an artistic itch that’s hard to scratch. But Jack Fuller, 43, is neither a frustrated novelist nor a trivial one.

In 1975, Fuller, with Yale Law School, two years as an Army enlisted man, and a year as a Tribune reporter under his belt, became a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi. His assignment in that post-Watergate era was to help write new rules of conduct for FBI agents assigned to domestic intelligence operations. Fuller rejoined the Tribune in 1977. He won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in 1986.

Obviously, Fuller’s time at Justice could only deepen him as a journalist. But he took more from the experience than that. In 1982 Fuller published his first novel, Convergence, a cold war meditation on duplicity whose theme and structure converged with chilling wit. Fuller’s published three novels since, a fifth comes out in England in January, and a sixth is nearly finished. When his promotion from executive editor to editor was announced a couple of weeks ago, we didn’t wonder what this change augured for the Tribune. The Tribune’s a sound paper and it wasn’t likely to augur anything especially dramatic. We wondered if Fuller would be able to go on writing novels.

“I haven’t in the last few days been working on my fiction,” Fuller admitted. “It’s been a little busy the last few days. [But] I’ve been in all sorts of jobs since I started writing novels. I started in the Army, when I had a lot of time to write, and followed in law school, when people didn’t have time to do anything, and in the Justice Department, where we worked long days and long weeks, and I continued to work on my fiction.

“It’s not clear to me what this job will do to all that. . . . I suspect the pace may change but I don’t think that I’ll give it up. I know I won’t give it up.

“I have a public life,” Fuller continued. “I have a family life, which is very important to me. And I have a private, solitary life which is what I do in my fiction. All these things come together nicely and are very nourishing and are part of the package. I don’t know how anyone else does what they do, but for me it has been as natural as breathing.

“You have to make choices, and I do, and you have to give up a certain amount of leisure, and I do. But other than trying to learn how to play jazz piano, I don’t have any other compelling hobbies. I don’t play tennis or sports. People find various things to nourish their spirits. This one is mine.”

Our questioning now shifted to a more perfunctory mode. “Mr. Justice Fuller”–as he’s been called around the Tribune–told us that his administrative style at the Tribune is “completely different” from Squires’s. Squires was hot-tempered, impulsive, and intimidating. There was a lot of Mike Ditka in Squires. We asked Fuller to describe his own style.

“Ask somebody else,” he said. “It’s like asking a jazz piano player, what style do you play? Mine.”

We had already asked around. “Jack is one of the really, really smart guys,” someone at the paper told us. “If indeed his mind is too tidy, he will make sure he’s surrounded by other messy minds.” Someone else said, “Extremely nice, a gentleman, cautious, diplomatic, smart, very disciplined, a real mensch. Very worldly, very educated, actually smart. I have nothing but admiration for him.”

Although Squires is not passing on to Fuller a newspaper that needs fixing, some matters do need to be thought through. An in-house task force created to chart the 90s reported back a few days ago, and one of the puzzlers turned out to be how the Tribune should cover its own backyard.

Fuller said, “Let me tell you what I think the challenge is in local coverage. I think the challenge is finding a way to deal with an increasingly diverse metropolitan area. I don’t think anyone has found a way to do that in a way that fulfills our classic role. It’s easier to figure out what you should do when it comes to dealing with the great questions of social policy of our time, the great national, international upheavals of our time.”

We had told Fuller we didn’t think Chicago papers had a sense of the streets anymore.

“We’re a newspaper that covers an area spread out all over God’s creation,” he responded. “I don’t mean just in terms of geography but in terms of the diversity of our audience and their interests. How do you deal with so many communities yet do it in a way that fulfills your mission as a newspaper?”

Which is? we said.

“To print the news and raise hell,” Fuller said lightly. “If you want the classic mission, there it is. But I’m thinking of the democratic mission, the social mission, to inform the people about the world as it is, to tell people of significant things going on around them so they can understand the passing scene. A sense of the street is part of it, but only part. Whose street? Where? How about all of them? Which streets do you pay attention to?

“Every metropolitan paper in the country is struggling with that, and so are we.”

Spicy Story; Nobody Bites

When we said “sense of the streets” to Jack Fuller, we had something specific in the back of our mind. This was the tussling that had gone on for days on end within what’s casually called the progressive wing of the local Democratic Party. It was about which candidate to endorse for president of the Cook County Board, Alderman David Orr or Judge Eugene Pincham.

Taking Pincham’s part were machine-forged black politicos like aldermen Robert Shaw and Allan Streeter. Behind Orr were such genuine Harold Washington coalitionists as aldermen Bobby Rush, Dorothy Tillman, Jesus Garcia, and Ray Figueroa, former Washington operatives Jacky Grimshaw and Joe Gardner, community activist Nancy Jefferson.

I strayed, said Shaw, during one of the rambunctious meetings at Streeter’s 17th Ward headquarters that settled nothing. I supported Jane Byrne in ’83 and the voters ran me out of office. I was lucky enough to get back in and the lesson’s learned. Never again. I’m black now, black all the way.

This was a public meeting, and Shaw was booed so vigorously that Alderman Danny Davis had to ask for order.

Bobby Rush was disgusted. “I am so confident of my blackness I don’t need to prove my blackness,” he responded in roughly those words. “If we’re talking about coalition,” said Jesus Garcia, “we’re what makes this a coalition. If we’re talking about a coalition let’s go forward and expand our base. If you really want black empowerment, tell us. We’ll respect that, but don’t waste our time. Ray [Figueroa] and I’ll leave. We’ll leave amicably, but we’ll leave.”

The Hispanics stayed, but no, this debate wasn’t about coalition. It wasn’t even about numbers–Orr had the numbers. It was about talking Pincham out of the race. If he stayed the black vote would flow to him, and Orr–despite impressive polls, and clearly greater electability–would be a dead duck. Pincham stayed in and Orr wound up filing for county clerk.

Coalition politics, if there even was such a thing after Washington died, was now thoroughly a shambles.

It all made a terrific running story. We followed it day in and day out–by telephone. This is real hardball politics and the papers aren’t covering it! one of our plugged-in friends kept telling us.

Ahh, they’ll catch up with it tomorrow, we kept replying.

And they never did. The story was entertaining as can be, but political writers laid off until the Tribune’s Thomas Hardy finally wrote an overview after the dispute was played out.

Overviews aren’t spicy yarns spun out of yesterday’s hullabaloo. Papers that want to be read ought to cover these yarns as they unravel, even if it’s in places as far from the Loop as the 17th Ward.

Marshall Field’s Legacy

You probably didn’t see the story, which ran in section 16, but real estate baron Marshall Field looked back on his years as a press baron a few weeks ago in the Sunday Tribune.

“I always liked real estate. It’s a fascinating business . . .” Field was quoted as saying. “I was in newspapering for 20 years. I don’t miss it. I really had given everything I had to give.”

A onetime Daily News editor sent us the item, along with a note recalling Marshall Field’s contributions:

A sentence of death to the revered, 100-year-old Chicago Daily News.

A nearly lethal blow to the Chicago Sun-Times, which he sold to Rupert Murdoch after promising never to do so . . .

But let’s be fair to Field. He said he gave it all. He didn’t say he kept any of it.

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