Ryan? How Could They?
One good reason editorial pages are run by committees is to keep writers from getting carried away by their consciences. Not that a group isn’t fully capable of taking a stand, but rarely is the stand so ardent and unequivocal that it can’t easily be repositioned. No committee would have agreed to the headstrong editorial that appeared in the Tribune on Monday, November 6, 1995. Don Wycliff, then head of the Tribune’s editorial board, came in on a Sunday afternoon, pounded it out without consulting anybody, and put it in the next day’s paper. That editorial has haunted the Tribune ever since.
Wycliff was angry and disgusted. The week before, a Du Page County judge had denounced the police investigation into the 1983 murder of Jeanine Nicarico and finally acquitted Rolando Cruz of the crime. The exoneration of Cruz, who’d twice been convicted and condemned to die for the murder, and his codefendant Alejandro Hernandez was a cause closely identified with the Tribune–though this was thanks to the reporting of columnist Eric Zorn, and no thanks to the editorial page. Sixteen months earlier, when the state supreme court overturned Cruz’s second conviction and Jim Ryan, then state’s attorney of Du Page County, announced that he would try him a third time, the Tribune had approved. “The high court found trial errors,” said the editorial page. “It didn’t find Cruz not guilty.” Later in ’94 the Tribune endorsed Ryan for attorney general of Illinois without mentioning the Cruz case.
This indulgence of the Du Page County authorities didn’t sit well with Wycliff. “I had made it clear I was skeptical of the wisdom of this prosecution,” he told me in November 1995. “I had deferred to other members of the board who had greater and longer knowledge of the case than I.” They would have included Wycliff’s deputy, Bruce Dold, who at one point covered the Cruz prosecution.
Wycliff also said, “There’s been disagreement among us on the board for some time, and the earlier editorial reflected a consensus view of things. The last one reflected my view of things….The Tribune supports the use of the death penalty in extraordinary cases, but by God we also depend on elected officials to exercise the utmost judgment to see that things like this do not happen.”
If Du Page County authorities had got their way, Wycliff’s editorial argued, “Cruz and Hernandez would be dead now, executed…on the basis of ‘evidence’ that was never more than a tissue of lies.” Wycliff saluted the truth tellers: Zorn; law professor Lawrence Marshall, who’d represented Cruz; an assistant attorney general and a Du Page County sheriff’s investigator, who’d both repudiated the prosecution by resigning. “But it is not enough to praise the heroes,” Wycliff continued. “Those who did wrong or were derelict also must be held to account. At the top of this list must be Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan, who as DuPage County state’s attorney mounted the first two prosecutions of Cruz. Ryan needs to explain why getting a conviction was more important to him than getting justice.
“One thing is clear,” Wycliff went on, in language that could never be taken back, “none of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”
Last Sunday the Tribune endorsed Jim Ryan for governor. For some reason I was surprised. It wasn’t that I’d expected the Tribune to deny Ryan its endorsement simply because back in 1995 it declared him without honor and forever unfit for public office. The Tribune had already endorsed Ryan since then. In 1998 it had urged his reelection as attorney general–issuing a “qualified and reluctant” endorsement but an endorsement all the same.
But two things happened after 1998 that I thought would be decisive. First, in 1999 the Tribune published two long, anguished, Pulitzer-nominated series on prosecutorial misconduct and death row injustice; they planted the Tribune brand squarely against the sort of behavior Wycliff had denounced Ryan for in ’95. Second, the Illinois Republican Party fell apart. And so, though the Tribune always–always–endorses the Republican candidate for governor, I expected its concern for its own dignity to outweigh its concern for its traditions. I expected it to reason that the Republican Party, which has held the governor’s mansion since 1976, would best serve itself (and it goes without saying that what’s good for the Republican Party is good for Illinois) by taking four years off to regroup. So I expected a highly qualified and reluctant endorsement of Rod Blagojevich. Admittedly, he’s a turkey, but he’s no more unqualified for the office he’s running for than Lisa Madigan is to be attorney general–and the Tribune endorsed her over Joseph Birkett. The Tribune laced into Birkett, the current Du Page County state’s attorney, over the Cruz-Hernandez prosecution, and his role in that was far smaller than Ryan’s.
Some readers–I’m not one of them–might feel betrayed. They might be wondering where the Tribune gets off, posturing in public about the ethical principles that guide it (Wycliff’s present job as public editor involves making sure readers never stop admiring the paper for those principles) when its own deepest convictions turn out to be a pose. But look at this from the Tribune’s point of view. As a callow profligate threatens to seize the state’s reins and run it into the ground, must the paper that could best raise the alarm be bound by a minion’s anguished outburst seven years ago?
What conclusion could a serious newspaper reach but no? Dold, who today holds Wycliff’s old job as editor of the editorial page, tells me the Ryan endorsement was supported by publisher Scott Smith and editor Ann Marie Lipinski as well as by a “clear majority” of the editorial board. Discussing the endorsement Monday night on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Dold said he’d “strongly disagreed” with Wycliff’s 1995 editorial when Wycliff wrote it, adding, “I was not the editorial page editor.”
By E-mail, Dold elaborated. He told me his problem with the 1995 editorial was that “it left no room for redemption, it left no room to consider subsequent actions by those who were involved in the case. We endorsed Ryan, we did not endorse Birkett. One key reason is that Birkett seems not to have learned anything from the Cruz case. He opposes the moratorium and has opposed many of the death penalty and prosecutorial misconduct reforms we have supported. Ryan, I believe, has learned something. He supports the moratorium and many of the reforms. On at least one key issue–the mandatory videotaping of interrogations–Ryan is in support, Blagojevich is opposed. Ryan also seems more willing than Blagojevich is to reduce the number of aggravating factors that qualify for the death penalty. It has been several years since that editorial was written. In that time Ryan has, in effect, offered some evidence in mitigation. In 1995 we ruled out any consideration of such evidence. I think it deserved to be considered, and it was.”
In February 1994, at a time when Cruz had already spent ten years behind bars and was awaiting execution by lethal injection, Zorn began his series of columns condemning the office of the Du Page County state’s attorney, which Ryan then headed. It had “paraded thieves, liars and bumbling lawmen in front of the jury in lieu of real evidence implicating Cruz,” one column protested, “and unashamedly and successfully fought to prevent them from hearing cold hard facts that might well have exonerated him.” Zorn’s description of the behavior of Ryan’s office was no more than the truth, and Dold allowed on Chicago Tonight that Ryan still “doesn’t want to apologize” for it. “There’s criticism on that,” Dold conceded, “but I do think he’s learned that the system is flawed and it needs to be fixed.”
Another panelist, David Axelrod, said that the Tribune endorsement reminded him “of the park ranger who started the fire and wanted credit for putting it out. He started the ball rolling on the death penalty because of the tragic way in which he mishandled the Cruz case….I think Ryan’s motives on the death penalty are very suspect given his behavior on the issue until he became a candidate for governor, when it was clear he was going to be attacked for it.”
Since Axelrod is a Democratic political consultant, you can make what you wish of his opinion. At any rate, the Tribune endorsement hailed Ryan’s “strength of character.” It called Ryan a man who “can make a firm decision when a decision must be made. And the next governor needs to be someone who can make brutally firm decisions.” Holding that governor to a higher standard than it could just now hold itself to, the Tribune asserted, “Illinois, more than ever before, needs a governor who understands that when he says something, he is supposed to mean it.”
The Tribune didn’t pretend that the 1995 editorial never happened. “Six years ago,” the Ryan endorsement acknowledged, “this newspaper was harshly critical of his handling of the prosecution of former Death Row inmates Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were ultimately acquitted in the murder of a little girl. That history weighed heavily in the decision on whether to endorse him today. His handling of the Cruz and Hernandez case, particularly his office’s failure to aggressively pursue credible evidence that another man committed the crimes, are still cause for profound concern. Ryan’s steadfast claim that ‘I made the best decision possible with the evidence I had at the time’ remains unsatisfying.
“On this issue, though, voters must make this decision: whether to look to the past or look to the future. There is evidence that Ryan has reflected on the past, and learned from it.”
Phrases such as “weighed heavily” and “cause for profound concern”–marshaled by the Tribune to convey its enduring distress over the Cruz case–are choice samples of the kind of language committees love. They signify gravity, high seriousness, and scrupulous deliberation while saying nothing. They typify the kind of rhetoric Wycliff shoved aside when he wrote to denounce dishonor, not to suck his thumb over it. The Tribune’s Ryan endorsement recalled the 1995 editorial but didn’t quote a word Wycliff wrote, and I’m not sure how it could have.
I asked Wycliff this week if he had second thoughts of his own. “I have never regretted the earlier editorial and will be acting on election day in keeping with its spirit,” he replied. “In fairness to everyone else here, I’d best say nothing more.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP/Wide World Photos.