Skewered in the Tribune

Madame DeFarge would have envied the needlework in the Edwin Eisendrath profile the Tribune ran the other day. If you weren’t sure what to make of Eisendrath when he took the job of regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, you now know he’s one of the “more puzzling failures in Chicago politics.”

We’d have thought Eisendrath’s new job was a pretty good one for an alderman to move on to. Guess not. “I will not be a bureaucrat,” he told reporter Scott Collins. So Collins obligingly dubbed him an apparatchik, which anyone with an ear for nuance knows is no mere bureaucrat but a bootlicking functionary strategically placed to obstruct creativity and frustrate initiative. Not only that, he’s “pudgier than he was,” pudgy being one of those physical details like “balding” and “stocky” that belong in a psychological profile because of the volumes they speak about personality. Obviously Eisendrath, since running for Congress in 1990 and getting clobbered by Sidney Yates, has gone to seed. And being “just shy of 36,” he’s beyond redemption.

A free-lancer without roots in the Tribunes political coverage, Collins did not pass judgment on the basis of his own suspect authority. Instead he scrupulously identified his experts: “The move left some political observers scratching their heads.” “Some began to notice that Eisendrath . . . seemed to lack a set of principles or guiding beliefs.” “‘That was a terrible mistake, unconscionable,’ says one former friend.” “Conventional wisdom says Eisendrath wanted too much too soon.”

For the last word on what reduced Eisendrath to a pathetic mound of jelly, Collins turned to an intimate. It was hubris, said Mary Baim with unimpeachable objectivity. Baim knows Eisendrath better than just about anybody does, having observed him closely in 1991 when she ran against him for alderman. Since his easy reelection in that race doesn’t fit the theory of Eisendrath as a parvenu whose career turned to ashes, Collins properly brushed over it. Just as he brushed over anything Eisendrath accomplished as alderman.

Collins’s article was assigned by former Tempo editor Jim Warren, who then moved to Washington, and it came in and was edited before Warren’s successor, Rick Kogan, took over. That doesn’t necessarily mean it fell through a crack. The Tribune wants to encourage lively writing in the features section. Eisendrath was supposed to be a good sport and understand it was nothing personal.

But Eisendrath wasn’t a good sport. He got pissed off enough to bang out a letter to features editor Owen Youngman, and Tuesday went in to confront Youngman personally. He spent 20 minutes with Youngman, Kogan, and some other editors and left mollified. He’d been heard.

“The interview was granted based on a misrepresentation,” Eisendrath told us. “I was told it would be a profile of me, with an emphasis on what I want to do here at HUD, and obviously that’s not what it was about. It’s about a thesis known as Eisendrath’s rise and fall, and that’s not something I would have granted an interview for.”

We couldn’t reach Collins, but Warren, who was in town this week, read the piece and got back to us. “Obviously, he’d have to have been really naive to think we’d simply do a piece on him and HUD. The theme of ambition thwarted in some way is, I think, a credible thesis. As far as the tone of it, it’s a piece with a point of view.”

But not, we think, one it earned in the arguing. Nonetheless Eisendrath probably made a mistake in letting a patch of thin skin show. Another way to react would have been with the impenetrable opacity of the classic apparatchik. Or as Collins put it, “Hubris or not, Eisendrath plows on, all in the name of public service.”

Caution: Contains Jokes

It’s red-alert time at the Sun-Times. Editor Dennis Britton has ordered his lieutenants to maintain maximum vigilance over the comics.

Britton was vexed to the point of memo writing by Porterfield, the Joe Martin cartoon that runs in the financial section. The troubling panel showed a masked man pointing his gun at a military bigwig. “Stick ’em up . . . SIR!” said the bandit.

Said Britton’s memo: “The theme of this cartoon . . . is unacceptable in the Chicago Sun-Times. Armed robbery is not funny. Please look at every cartoon and comic before publication and eliminate those that are tasteless or simply not funny.”

Britton did not spell out what sort of material he thinks is tasteful and funny, and some queasy reporters imagined terrified underlings skirting the boss’s wrath by throwing out everything but the heartwarming hilarity of Family Circus.

They should relax. Our own sophisticated research establishes Britton as tolerant to a fault. We reached for the Sun-Times stack on the floor and scoured recent episodes of Martin’s Porterfield and Willy ‘n’ Ethel. It’s astonishing the variety of witless themes Britton hasn’t complained about.

Willy ‘n’ Ethel: Obesity. Vandalism. Contempt for the law. Bankruptcy. Poverty. Gluttony. Stupidity. Sloth.

Porterfield: Poverty. Poverty. Poverty. Hell. Interplanetary war. Hell. Bank robbers on lunch break. Hell.

Do you think poverty is funny? Eternal damnation? A lot of folks we know think eternal damnation is about as serious a subject as there is. But it’s a big joke at the Sun-Times.

File Photo

It’s never the wrong time for a good picture. So the New York Times dusted off a negative last week and reran the famous 1972 photograph of a naked little girl and a bunch of other hysterical Vietnamese kids running down the road after a napalm strike.

Mindless sensationalism? Not when the Times does it. The president had just lifted the trade embargo against Hanoi after 19 years of hard feelings. That’s plenty of water under the bridge, and the Times must have figured a lot of people by now weren’t sure what the embargo was about in the first place. Imagine how many graying readers studied the picture, slapped their knee, and exclaimed, “Of course! That Vietnam war.”

Who’ll Do Anything?

For a moment last week we thought we’d witnessed National Public Radio committing unseemliness. Thank God it turned out to be an illusion.

The interview show Fresh Air devoted its entire hour (and this rarely happens) to one subject. Not war. Not peace. Not infinity. Host Terry Gross chatted for 30 minutes with James L. Brooks, director of the new movie I’ll Do Anything, and for 30 minutes more with one of its stars, Julie Kavner.

Boy, that film is soaking up ink and airwaves, we marveled. No one’s calling it a masterpiece, but somehow it’s an event–amazing what a good publicist can do. Not that Gross’s interviews were anything but interesting.

Fresh Air was followed by the hourly news. The news was followed by an announcement that it had been made possible by a grant from Columbia Pictures, producers of the new film I’ll Do Anything.

“Ethically, it shouldn’t be there,” said Lenore Tuttle-Wilkas, associate director for corporate underwriting at NPR. She was speaking of the underwriting credit for Brooks’s flick, which left the impression that the Fresh Air show a few minutes earlier had been one long advertorial.

Then why was it? we asked.

“Pure coincidence,” she said. Columbia bought time on NPR about six weeks ago, and her office penciled in an I’ll Do Anything plug for 4 PM CST on February 3. Meanwhile, Fresh Air was being put together independent of NPR at WHYY in Philadelphia. The show is fed by satellite to the NPR affiliates that take it, and Tuttle-Wilkas said her office won’t know who Gross will be interviewing on a given day until Gross begins to interview them.

And because her office usually isn’t listening, it doesn’t know then. NPR’s appearance of impropriety was news to Tuttle-Wilkas when we called her. Later she said, “The reaction around here was ‘Oh no!’ That’s what everyone around here said–‘Oh my God!’ I was horrified.”

At Fresh Air, senior producer Danny Miller said the show had been after Brooks ever since he made Broadcast News back in 1987. Kavner, the voice of Marge Simpson, also was a project. Suddenly separate agents made each of them available. “They were two unaffiliated bookings,” said Miller, “except that people become available when they have something to promote.”

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