Take My Presidency, Please

With all due respect to America’s democratic traditions, show me a contested election and I’ll show you an organization in turmoil. Tyrants don’t like contested elections because they’d rather think of their domains as one big happy family. Journalists do like them–they have papers to sell–but in their own bailiwicks they’re like everyone else in preferring a prearranged, stress-free succession.

For a few dramatic days this month the Chicago Headline Club faced its first contested election for president in decades. The position was supposed to go to president-elect Lucio Guerrero, who’d be elevated unanimously at a meeting in May by members who thanked God there was someone willing to take on the two years of drudgery. Guerrero’s primary credential was this: as a Sun-Times reporter, he’s the real thing.

The CHC is the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. It sponsors lectures, convenes panels, lobbies politicians when First Amendment interests are at stake, and awards prizes. And like so many other professional associations dependent on volunteer labor, it suffers from a schism in its ranks. On one side are the working pros, who give the organization legitimacy but are usually too busy to contribute much; on the other are the wannabes, who seem to have all the time and energy in the world.

To counter the impression that PR types rule the roost, the CHC in recent years has searched for impeccably credentialed journalists to install at the top. The president this past year was Ben Bradley, a reporter for WLS TV. He’d followed Molly McDonough, a reporter for the ABA Journal, who’d followed Christine Tatum, then a Tribune technology reporter. Guerrero would be their worthy successor.

But last fall Guerrero resigned as president-elect. His day job was eating up his time, and a Headline Club vice president named John Camden was driving him nuts. As president-elect, Guerrero was in charge of programming, and the biggest part of that duty was running the well-regarded Les Brownlee Journalism Series. Last fall Camden concluded that Guerrero was the wrong man for the job. “Christine [Tatum] leaned on me to get in there and shore things up,” Camden e-mailed me the other day. “I pleaded with him several times to handle things but he couldn’t. Since technically he was in charge, he had ‘to be removed’ so I could take things over. I know this sounds harsh, but legally with some vendors, you have to have the title to commit to things….His ‘firing’ was more a technical thing than anything personal.”

It wasn’t a technical thing to Guerrero. “Camden got on me for not scheduling enough programming,” Guerrero e-mailed me. “John comes from an era of the CHC–when Christie Tatum was in charge–when there were lots of programs. Unfortunately, that set a standard that was impossible to duplicate again. The programs were also not the kinds that many working journalists would probably be interested in–stuff more for PR flaks and such. So when I was on the board I was in charge of programming. Like I said, I was very busy here at the Sun-Times–after all I am a working journalist and not a consultant (ok, cheap shot)–and didn’t keep the schedule up to John’s standards. He took it upon himself to get me removed from the board.”

Whether Camden could have actually persuaded the CHC to oust its president-elect will never be known. “I beat him to the punch,” Guerrero told me, “and just resigned.”

Later Camden stewed about driving Guerrero off. “I didn’t realize how busy he was, got overloaded myself, and as a result probably took a lot out on him,” Camden e-mailed me. “I regret it but also attribute the overall cause to our lack of planning, adequate support from the president.”

It wasn’t just Guerrero’s performance Camden had disapproved of. It was Bradley’s too. As Camden explained it to me, “It is not that Ben was/is doing a bad job. To be frank, I was shoring his position up considerably, covering the vacant portfolio of VP of programming as well as my membership one, in addition to handling Lisagor Awards and Brownlee event production duties. My frustration was that I had to make a lot of decisions without his input or availability–and he later didn’t back them.”

CHC board members beat the bushes looking for someone to take over as president when Bradley’s one-year term was up. But through the winter and spring not a single one of the club’s 300-some members came forward. Finally Bradley reluctantly agreed to stay on.

Actually, he hadn’t been that happy himself with his performance and figured that in a second year he’d do more things right. He hadn’t been as hands-on as Tatum and McDonough–his TV work consumed too much of his time. His administrative style had been a little more slapdash. And he simply hadn’t felt prepared–he wasn’t even a board member when Tatum and McDonough asked him to run for president-elect. “That gave me a long learning curve,” he says.

But Camden was unhappier. A stickler for performance, he’s the kind of tireless yeoman without whom organizations like CHC collapse. He’d risen in the ranks to the post of vice president in charge of membership, but he was never too busy to lend a hand wherever one was needed, whether it was promoting a lecture on journalism ethics or helping to organize the annual Lisagor Awards dinner.

Where Camden fell short was in his qualifications for belonging to CHC in the first place. By his own admission he’s not a journalist. When I asked him by e-mail the other day how he makes his living, he replied, “I am a consultant with Tribune Publishing currently working on financial projects.” I asked him to elaborate, and he added, “A lot of it has to do with all the recent corporate Sarbanes-Oxley compliance requirements–including producing and publishing reports.”

Members of CHC are as bewildered as I am by what that means. Yet despite Camden’s shaky credentials, this spring the presidency was probably his for the asking. Secretary Sue Stevens tells me, “If John had said in March or April or May that he wanted the job he would have been handed it on a golden platter. But he didn’t.”

Camden wasn’t even a candidate for reelection to the board. “You can’t force somebody to do something he doesn’t want to do,” says Stevens. “We thought we’d never see him again.”

The board was slow to put together a decent slate of candidates, and the May vote on new officers was postponed to the July 14 membership meeting at Harry Caray’s. Everyone agrees that Bradley was far too late in notifying the members of this new date. To make matters worse, thanks to a typo, the newsletter that went out said July 16. Camden made an issue of these blunders when the board met at Harry Caray’s before the July 14 membership meeting, and Bradley again postponed the election, to August 17.

Because Camden’s beef about proper notice had been dealt with, and because he’d just voted to approve the slate of candidates the board intended to present to the membership, he stunned everyone when the membership meeting convened by asking for the floor and announcing that he was a candidate for president. Stevens, who joined the CHC in1969, the first year women were admitted, can’t remember a previous election for president that was contested.

Camden posted a statement on the Headline Club Web site. “Even though I am not currently a ‘working journalist,'” he argued, “our bylaws clearly state that there can be no discrimination on the basis of employment….Indeed, I think there is a good case to be made for someone who has a broad skill set like mine that includes experience in administration, technology, organization, and leadership.” He pledged an open and transparent administration. “And most importantly–I will be available.”

Otherwise, he campaigned by e-mail. “As most of you know by now,” he wrote on July 20, “I have been around a few years and worked my way up in the Chicago Headline Club. Thus I would hardly categorize myself as a revolutionary or ‘rabble rouser’!” He regretted the “vile and threatening emails” he’d received “from those in leadership positions,” while professing surprise at the “tremendous out-pouring of support from the general membership.” His goals were modest: “I don’t want to be the leader of a lynch mob.” All he wished to do was “correct some oversights and push ahead with the building process more aggressively.”

So he made Bradley an offer. If he’d resign as president and pull out of the race, Camden would quit it too–provided they could agree on a “unity candidate.” But–and this was a big but–“time is running out.” So he gave Bradley a deadline to accept or reject his terms: “noon on Friday July 23rd.”

As the membership absorbed the tumultuous fact of Camden’s candidacy, his flair for dramatics didn’t help his cause. Opponents reacted to the deadline by pointing out that Bradley had left town July 18 and wouldn’t be back until the 24th. Acting on this information, Camden blitzed the membership with a July 22 e-mail declaring himself “acting president” of CHC. He explained, “I have received no communications from president Bradley and have been told he is on vacation. Since technically the office of VP programming is vacated the acting presidency falls to me–as it has during numerous times during the last year. I want to stress to the new folks this is nothing out of the ordinary and is very important during this particular phase we now find ourselves in. The club must go on.”

I asked Camden what he was thinking.

“I assure you it was only done to get attention and get some folks to move on things,” he replied. “I think it did. Being a volunteer operation, you have to do some weird things to keep things going and motivate people.” He added, “There was a sense things were drifting.”

Bradley had been gone four days. The whiff of a bloodless coup was too much for Molly McDonough. She’d already e-mailed the membership a long letter supporting Bradley. Now she organized a countercoup. By the end of the day Camden had surrendered his self-assumed supreme position to Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner. As vice president for freedom of information, Kadner had as much right as Camden to proclaim himself acting president, though the idea would never have occurred to him. “It’s kind of a nonsense title, I think,” he told me.

Camden’s postmortem: “We had some intelligent people who wigged out.”

When Bradley, who’d been biking and climbing rocks in Colorado, checked his e-mail that evening and found out what had gone on back in Chicago, he e-mailed McDonough, Camden, Kadner, and other CHC officers: “I see no need for John Camden to install himself as ‘acting president’ or turn over the reigns [sic] to Phil because I’m out of town on a 5 day vacation. That is a fairly unprecedented move.” But he went on to tell Kadner, “Phil enjoy the power, prestige and perks of the presidency until I return tomorrow (Friday). I’ll be sure to have the nuclear launch codes couriered over to the Southtown ASAP!”

By Friday, when Bradley got back to Chicago, there were rumors that Camden had decided to end his campaign. But he left town on a vacation of his own, and the weekend passed full of uncertainty. On Monday, Bradley found a message from Camden on his voice mail telling him he was dropping out. “In general,” says Bradley, “he didn’t realize it would grow into such a big deal. He thought it would be an internal board thing to make some points.”

It was a very big deal–partly because of Camden’s lack of finesse, partly because he’d become an insurgent in a body with no tradition of insurgency. I tried to call Camden, but he was somewhere in Canada and unreachable.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Yesteryear, tenderly remembered, is irresistible to editors, but no one ever got carried away the way the Chicago Tribune Magazine did this month. A June story in the magazine on Chicago taverns moved Ray Goslin of Palos Heights to write a letter that began: “Your corner-pubs article conjured up some pleasant memories of me as a young boy growing up in the Bridgeport area.” Goslin went on to describe the Friday-night ritual of his youth back in the 40s–fetching home beer in a porcelain pot from the tavern at 32nd Street and Aberdeen.

I was unaware of Goslin’s charming reminiscences until I received an e-mail from a reader that began: “Am I losing my mind or has the Sunday Tribune published the same letter three times in the past month in its magazine section?” The reader went on to say, “If I read the sentence ‘The charge was always two bits–not a quarter, two bits’ one more time, I may go completely insane.”

For reasons that magazine editor Elizabeth Taylor won’t discuss, except to allow that mistakes were made, Goslin’s letter ran in the July 4 magazine, the July 11 magazine, and the July 18 magazine.

I asked Goslin why he thought the Tribune had showed such uncommon enthusiasm for his recollections. “Very interesting writing,” he supposed.