The Man With the First-Class Body

When your time comes to be done in, you can be done in in a day. J. David Coldren had held an executive position in Illinois government since 1983, and everybody knew he liked to travel first class. “It was absolutely common knowledge,” says Tribune reporter Hanke Gratteau, who pulled Coldren’s travel records a couple of years ago but didn’t write the story.

Journalism finally got around to exposing Coldren this month, when he was already on borrowed time. Acting on a tip from a fellow reporter, the Tribune’s Rob Karwath established that Coldren, the executive director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, had “billed the state for first-class seats on 21 of the 32 flights he made in the last 2 1/2 years.”

The Tribune broke the story on February 4. The next day’s Trib offered Governor Edgar telling Karwath he was “shocked” and Edgar’s press secretary Mike Lawrence observing that Coldren “apparently has not gotten the message that the governor has sent loud and clear that we are to watch every dime of state expenditure.”

Coldren, a Jim Thompson appointee, had been wondering when Edgar would get around to replacing him. Obviously his number was now up. So Coldren, who was following events by phone during a vacation, called in February 5 and resigned.

Coldren’s downfall was his girth. He is very fat. When questioned–and he was questioned frequently over the years in appropriations hearings, which is why if Edgar didn’t know Coldren’s transit habits he might have been the only person in Springfield who didn’t–he always explained that he was simply too big for a coach seat. This reply never satisfied Senator Ted Leverenz of Maywood, who calls Coldren “Slim” and who told us, “I’ve been chasing him since 1981” (when Leverenz sat on the House Appropriations Committee, which he chaired for eight years in the 80s, and Coldren was deputy director of the Criminal Justice Information Authority’s predecessor, the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission). Leverenz told Coldren that if all those meetings he flew to were really so important he should send “a skinny guy with a video camera.” But Jim Thompson was governor, the state was not yet destitute, and Coldren did not heed the advice.

Fortunately for headline writers, the standards of political correctness do not prohibit displays of snappy wit at the expense of the obese. The Tribune headlined Karwath’s sober expose “Official’s first-class trips add fat to state’s costs.” The same story in the Du Page edition carried the headline, “State costs for air travel are full of fat.” When Coldren quit, the headline in the city read “Criticism too heavy for official,” and in Du Page, “State official quits under weight of criticism.”

An item in “Inc.” was labeled “wide bottom jet,” and the headline over the Tribune editorial applauding Coldren’s disappearance announced “Taxpayers bear a heavy load.”

It was journalism as usual, and not everyone was amused. Kevin Morison, who had been Coldren’s public-information officer, called us in dismay. “Dave Coldren is a man of dignity,” he said, “and he deserves much better than he was given by the Tribune.” Michael Maltz, a professor of criminal-justice at the University of Illinois, wrote the Tribune a furious letter. “I know Dave Coldren. He’s got his faults–we all do,” Maltz told us. “But one of the things he’s done is build the authority into what’s probably the best criminal-justice statistics agency in the nation.

“Poking fun at a person with a disability–that’s exactly what they were doing,” Maltz went on. “What they were doing was mocking a person who has what’s obviously a disorder. Anyone with a grain of sense who’s spoken with him or seen him knows this is the case.”

“Apparently nobody brought up the possibility that airline seats are too small,” said Bill Fabrey. Fabrey is founder of the Sacramento-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

“Suppose he’d been confined to a wheelchair,” Fabrey reflected. “Would they have zeroed in on this guy, or is he fair game because of the stereotype that a person is fat because of his own fault? We think larger-than-average people as a group are one of the last groups in the United States that it’s acceptable to pick on. People who are overweight are often victims of the same negative thinking that their enemies have. They buy into the idea there’s something wrong with them because of their size. Maybe this guy–he most likely tried all kinds of weight-loss programs if he’s like most fat people, and gained most of it back. But we shouldn’t even ask the question why’s he fat? He’s a person. He can do a job. He should be judged on that basis.”

Rob Karwath judged Coldren on the topical basis of thrift. “All I know is what the travel regulations say,” Karwath told us. “You’re supposed to travel by the most economical means available.” Coldren could have filed for a waiver from the state Department of Central Management Services, which oversees travel, on grounds that his weight ruled out coach. Karwath checked and Coldren hadn’t.

Thomas Murray, a civil rights specialist retired from the federal government, adds a wrinkle that was beyond the scope of Karwath’s reportage. “A person’s size can be a disability under federal law,” Murray informs us. “It might have looked good to take him to task for his travel arrangements. But if he was disabled, [first class] was just an accommodation.

“It’s just unfortunate people at his level don’t pursue such things” as civil rights suits, Murray goes on. “Had it been a subordinate of his, his agency could have been liable.”

Where Were You in ’69?

If the presidential campaign of 1992 is going to be waged on irrelevant issues, the country could do worse than the Vietnam war. Certainly the press won’t mind. The generation that fought in Vietnam, or didn’t, now furnishes many of the media’s most conspicuous voices. What relief these pundits must have felt, turning away from Gennifer Flowers, who so little deserved the perspicacity brought to bear on her, to reminisce on the greatest national tragedy since the Civil War.

We noticed the Tribune’s editorial page struggling to frame the issue. When Clinton Scandal II, the draft dodge of ’69, broke, the Tribune condescended: “In the end, what their behavior during the Vietnam era says about Clinton, Quayle and other members of their generation who will be snared in the future will rest with one highly competent jury: the American electorate. It often is forgiving and, over time, may be more so, even if it never forgets.”

Forgiving? A few days later the Tribune set forth a second editorial, largely, it seemed, to demonstrate it had thought better of the first one: “In 1992 . . . it may be hard to recall and appreciate the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War and the enormous pressures faced by young men of draft age.”

If you’re the right age, recalling is no trouble at all. Any man who can remember where he was when Kennedy was shot is going to remember his draft status six years later. Stephen Chapman wrote last Sunday: “Dying for a noble cause is hard enough to justify. Dying for a squalid one–and what already looked to be a losing one–was more than a lot of young men, including Bill Clinton, could justify in 1969.” Chapman felt obliged to place himself in those times: “Having come of draft age in 1973, the year the draft was abolished and the last American ground troops left Vietnam, I didn’t have to confront those choices. Millions of people did, and most of them managed to keep out of harm’s way.”

On the same page Clarence Page also looked back. Page got drafted in 1969, a few weeks too soon to be saved by the draft lottery that rescued Clinton. “I felt like some kind of sucker,” Page remembered. What he sees now is a “low-intensity witch hunt” directed at anyone back then who didn’t swagger off to war. “It appears the national patriotic orgasm that followed Operation Desert Storm had made it less acceptable to admit any ambivalence about running off and fighting for an obviously losing cause.”

In the Sun-Times, Steve Neal concluded, “Clinton shouldn’t be penalized now for standing up for his convictions then. More than ever, it’s clear that he was right and LBJ was tragically wrong.” But veteran Dennis Byrne called Clinton a hypocrite who tried “to turn his dodge into some kind of virtue.”

The New York Times’s Anna Quindlen recalled relief “sweet and tangy as a lemon drop” when her boyfriend’s birth date came up 365th in the draft lottery. Bill Clinton’s “like us,” said Quindlen. “He’s like so many who hated the war, who didn’t want to serve, who looked around to find ways to avoid it.”

But while Quindlen adored Clinton’s 23-year-old letter to his ROTC colonel–“I would have been proud to have raised a child capable of writing it”–Vietnam vet Walter McDougall, a professor of international relations writing in the New York Times, called the same letter “as cynical a document as I’ve read in some time.” Said McDougall, “If that is my generation’s notion of Honor, then we’re not worthy to govern after all.”

Another of the Tribune’s Sunday columnists, William Pfaff, argued that the United States changed fundamentally during the cold war. Pfaff held the Vietnam war to be “crucially important” in fostering “a loss of certainty about what it is to be an American, and beyond that, a loss of confidence in whether it is a good thing to be an American.”

Every candidate out there is telling us that to be an American remains a very good thing indeed. The nation may need to be convinced, which probably can be done only by someone able to show that he understands what he’s lived through.

Snake Story Credit

Earlier this month we wrote about snake hysteria on Argyle Street, a part of town “the mass media do not fathom at all.” Well, the dailies may have missed the story, but Lerner’s News-Star tracked it down and ran the yarn on page one. Credit where it’s due.