Republican, Right or Wrong

When George Ryan was indicted last month, Rick Pearson wrote a long Tribune story about Ryan’s life in politics. Pearson recalled that in 1998, as Ryan, then Illinois’ secretary of state, ran for governor, Operation Safe Road, a federal investigation of the secretary of state’s office, already was under way. But “U.S. Atty. Scott Lassar effectively gave Ryan a political pass by declaring that the Republican was not a target of the probe.”

“Career pol cut teeth in culture of clout,” as Pearson’s story was headlined, overlooked another of Ryan’s major enablers. The state’s biggest paper had given Ryan a pass of its own. “Our enthusiasm for Ryan is tempered by a couple of factors,” said the Tribune editorial endorsing him for governor in 1998. “One is the ongoing scandal of alleged sales of truck-driving licenses in the secretary of state’s office….It is deeply troubling that Ryan’s own investigators failed to ferret out the scandal and that bribe money allegedly wound up in Ryan’s campaign.”

“Deeply troubling” but not all that important. And virtue wasn’t important either–the Tribune described Ryan’s opponent, Glenn Poshard, as a “thoughtful, engaging and honest man.” What mattered to the Tribune–or so the Tribune said–was Ryan’s executive experience, ability to get things done, and stands on issues such as free trade. (Capital punishment was still over the horizon.)

The irony isn’t that the 1998 endorsement looks ridiculous by today’s lights, but that it doesn’t. It reads like the cold, shrewd judgment of a paper that set morality aside and based its endorsement strictly on who’d do better by Illinois. But to say this is to give the Tribune too much credit. The Tribune always endorses the Republican for governor. It made its case for Ryan out of the materials on hand.

Like Pearson’s story, the time line the Tribune published when Ryan was indicted also contained an oversight.

Nov. 8 [1994]: On the day Ryan is re-elected secretary of state, a highway crash caused by a truck driver with a fraudulent license kills six children…

Sept. 17 [1998]: The Democratic Party pays for an ad campaign suggesting a link between Ryan and the 1994 accident.

Oct. 10: Ryan denies allegations that one of his former investigators was told to drop the probe of the trucker in the deadly 1994 accident.

Nov. 3: Ryan is elected governor.

What about October 6, 1998? The time line might have said this: Democratic Party ad backfires. “Blame [Ryan] for those deaths? This is about as cruel as politics can get,” says Tribune, advising Poshard “to examine his conscience.” The ad, also slammed by leading Democrats such as Paul Simon, is taken off air.

When newspapers want to, they take credit for any small civic improvement they happened to support. When they don’t want to, they behold a landscape of their own design and fail to recall they ever came near it. As the Tribune apparently doesn’t wish to recall, Ryan could take the paper’s endorsement for granted from the day he was nominated. This inevitability tarnishes the coin that editorial pages claim to trade in. Was conscience signified when the Tribune stood by the embattled Ryan and supported him for governor? Four years later, did the Tribune show uncommon scruple when it changed its mind and endorsed Attorney General Jim Ryan, whom it had once declared unfit for public office? Hardwired editorial pages don’t seem clear on the point of why we read them.

Tale of Two Georges

The Tribune editorial commenting on George Ryan’s indictment observed that “the tolerance of Illinois citizens for the public corruption that victimizes all of us has, too often, been too lenient. We’ve tended to wink and nod.” Though Ryan hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, the editorial said his administration “was long ago found guilty in the court of public opinion of putting his personal ambition ahead of public service.” His trial may tell us “what many Illinois citizens have wondered for years: what role Ryan himself did or didn’t play in disgracing two of this state’s highest offices.”

It’s interesting that Ryan’s attorney, Dan Webb, is the former sidekick of James Thompson. Webb learned from this master, who in 1973 convicted former governor Otto Kerner of crimes involving racetrack stock and racing dates that only Thompson, a few reporters, and possibly Kerner himself could understand. Now Webb will defend Ryan against an indictment that could be the first reading assignment in Political Corruption 101.

Illinois governors are not simple men. Prison turned out to be Kerner’s fate, but his monument was the Kerner Commission Report, the historic 1968 document that warned America it was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal.” Two years ago Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment reported back with the message that anyone interested in the ultimate consequences of separate, unequal societies should look at death row.

Ryan’s performance as secretary of state is one thing, but plenty of people between here and Oslo don’t think he disgraced the office of governor. On many days the Tribune editorial page could be counted among them. On October 3, 2002, for example, it saluted. “The movement to change the justice system has had many supporters,” it said then, “but it has largely been sustained by one person, Gov. George Ryan.”

Ryan’s been called an opportunist for latching onto capital punishment as a good-government issue, but Rick Pearson found signs of Ryan’s skepticism that go back to 1977. Editorial writers aren’t in the business of sucking their thumbs over the complex human psyche, and so long as Ryan wasn’t running for reelection it was easy enough for the Tribune to condemn or praise him wholeheartedly, depending on the matter at hand. Now it appears a jury will be asked to do what the papers haven’t, which is to take the whole man and his contradictions into account. Webb says he’s determined to tell the court all about the George Ryan who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Block That Cliche

The Sun-Times editorial page is unmatched at expressing contempt. But it’s a new year, and Sun-Times editors might want to ask their editorialists to look for new ways of dismissing the rabble. Some of the old devices are getting shopworn, as these excerpts from 2003 editorials suggest.

January 19: “The crowd condemning Israel includes the usual suspects who damn the tough U.S. stand toward Iraq.”

February 5: “But the fact that [Colin Powell] has not yet spoken, not yet presented his evidence of mobile biological weapons labs and intercepted conversations of Iraqi officials discussing weapons, does not mean that the ‘no-war, no-way, no-how’ crowd has been waiting to register its opinions.”

February 11: “A common sneer of the Don’t Do Anything To Upset Anyone Anywhere crowd goes like this: ‘How can we fight Iraq when we can’t even find Osama bin Laden?'”

March 4: “Among the many specious anti-war non-arguments mustered by the head-in-the-sand crowd, among the flimsiest has always been the odd notion that defanging Saddam Hussein should wait until al-Qaida has been defeated ‘first.'”

March 24: “We would be more convinced if the bulk of the protesters weren’t the same type of young, anti-Starbucks crowd who closed down Seattle during anti-globalism riots.”

July 2: “Meanwhile, Ryan left office in a blaze of moral glory, with high-toned speeches and the applause of academics, basking in the kudos of the anti-capital punishment crowd.”

August 18: “How else, the get-tough-with-teen-murderers crowd argued, would you deal with an outrage like the sniper rampage that killed 13 people last year when one of the accused is a juvenile?”

October 28: “The ‘why do they hate us?’ crowd is always parsing past U.S. actions, trying to explain the hostility we face in places.”

November 18: “Sadly, we can’t make that alternate reality tangible and use it to illustrate the emptiness of the End the War crowd.”

December 15: “As for the anti-war crowd who have been carping about a Vietnam quagmire, what have they got to say now that we’ve nailed Ho Chi Minh?”

December 18: “That made [George Ryan] the darling of the anti-death penalty crowd, and some might still stand with him. But we bet that call from Stockholm [they must mean Oslo] is never going to come now.”

If the Sun-Times continues down this road its stylebook should at least choose between quotes, caps, and hyphens.

They really think Saddam was Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh?

News Bites

Because the Tribune hasn’t had its own cartoonist since Jeff MacNelly died in 2000 and because semiretired Richard Locher, who’s been helping out, wasn’t available when Ryan was indicted, editorial-page editor Bruce Dold called on Scott Stantis of the Birmingham News in Alabama. Dold likes Stantis’s work and occasionally picks up his cartoons on national subjects. And so it was that Stantis, hundreds of miles away, got the assignment to comment on Illinois’ biggest local story of the new century.

His idea was to turn Ryan into a Saddam Hussein. He drew Ryan poking his head out of a hole in the ground, as blindfolded “Justice” points a sword at his nose and announces, “We got him!”

Over at the Sun-Times Jack Higgins had the same basic idea. But Higgins has been watching Ryan for years, and his feelings about him surely run deeper than Stantis’s: he sneered at the whole man. Caption: “Another ex-leader–AND death penalty opponent–emerges from his hole…” Drawing: A heavily bearded George Ryan, hands up, poking his head out of a hole in the ground and exclaiming, “DO NOT SHOOT! I am the former governor of Illinois–a future Nobel laureate–and I am willing to negotiate.”

When a news story hangs from a vivid premise, a few facts supporting the premise belong somewhere in the narrative. On December 28 the Tribune Metro section carried a story out of tiny Elizabethtown on the Ohio River in southern Illinois. The headline to James Janega’s account announced, “Innkeepers’ feud rouses sleepy Downstate town,” and there were references in the story to a “spat,” a “feud,” a “grudge,” a “row,” “sore feelings,” and “bad blood.” We were told that “the Clark and Phillips families are known as the town’s Hatfields and McCoys.”

The Phillipses run Elizabethtown’s only bed-and-breakfast, the Clarks its only hotel. The Tribune told us that mothballs had been tossed into the Phillipses’ swimming pool and the tail lights of their car had been cracked, whereupon Don Phillips said he set up a hidden camera and caught Terry Clark tossing beer cans into the Phillipses’ yard. Clark was charged with disorderly conduct.

But of course a feud runs two ways, so what was it the Phillipses did to the Clarks? The Tribune story didn’t mention a single thing. The rhetoric said feud. The facts as stated said petty harassment.

“James hot, his shoes not” –Tribune headline, December 21.

“Nike’s new LeBron shoes off and running” –Sun-Times headline, December 21.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.