Well, let’s start at the beginning, or shall I say let’s arbitrarily designate a beginning, before which Jane Byrne was the mayor and Jay McMullen was her husband and Bill Griffin was her chief of staff and Michael Sneed was his wife and Mike Royko was a columnist and Walter Jacobson was an anchorman and Richie Daley and Neil Hartigan were the mayor’s enemies, so the wheels, we must admit, were already in motion.

But let’s just say it began on January 13, when Royko wrote in the Sun-Times that the mayor “has managed to surround herself with as amazing a collection of political connivers, wheeler-dealers, misfits, incompetents, and deadbeats as I’ve ever seen.” Vintage Royko, but this column had an odd effect on a lot of other journalists, particularly some who worked at the Chicago Tribune: it made them mad. Why was Royko ridiculing one former aid who made a fool of himself in bars; isn’t his own barroom behavior just as notorious? And why was there no mention of McMullen, the husband and confidant and legendary wheeler-dealer; does Royko give his old Daily News pals a free ride? And why was Royko so unfair to Bill Griffin?

Griffin, wrote Royko, “wheedled himself in Jane Byrne’s good graces [and] switched from being a Tribune reporter of no great distinction to being [a] City Hall power.” Griffin’s friends felt that wasn’t true; Byrne had amazed Griffin when she invited him to join the new administration, and Griffin had broken one of last year’s biggest stories, those lavish snow-study contracts the city gave Kenneth Sain. Without Griffin’s scoop, Byrne probably couldn’t have defeated Mike Bilandic. Was Royko calling that “wheedling”?

But we mustn’t dwell on that column; there’s too much ground to cover. Suffice it to say that a lot of Griffin’s old Tribune friends were angry for him, and among them was the friend who was also his wife: Mike Sneed, back at the Tribune now after a brief, misbegotten excursion into City Hall working for her husband as the mayor’s press secretary. Now we move forward in time two weeks to January 27, when another Royko column christened Griffin and fellow aide Michael Brady “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” According to this column, Griffin’s “been snooping into the background of at least one journalist who has been critical of him … . The sources say Griffin is hoping to find a few juicy tidbits that could be sued to embarrass the critic.”

Why would Griffin be doing such a thing? Royko’s column dealt with that question. He wrote: ” … another source in the mayor’s office said: ‘Yeah, he’s doing it, and the reason is because his wife told him to do it … . Griffin came in a week or two ago and said his wife was really on his back to dig something up and get revenge … . He does what his wife tells him to do. He really jumps.'”

Royko didn’t identify the journalist whose dirty laundry was being given a shake, but if the reader of the column assumed it was Royko himself, the reader would not be wrong. The reader might also wonder, with the squeamish feeling that obtains when one senses an impropriety, whether one of those City Hall sources mightn’t have been Royko’s old friend Jay McMullen. But here, according tot he persuasive testimony of both Royko and McMullen, the reader would not be right.

Royko was amazed at the City Hall source who confirmed his story. He was so amazed at this source—who called him up and said it was true that Griffin was looking into an old incident in which Royko poured catsup on an actress in a Lincoln Avenue pub, into that and more, and he was doing it because his wife wears the pants—that Royko was talking about it openly at O’Rourke’s the night before the column hit the streets.

This source was Mayor Jane Byrne.

“She said Griffin had told her that Mike had been on his back to dig stuff up,” Royko said to me. He said the mayor spoke in an “explaining tone,” and seemed to be attempting “to shift responsibility from herself to Mike Sneed, whom she depicted as kind of a harpy.” The idea, Royko said, seemed to be “to get Jane off the hook and put the blame not only on Griffin but on Griffin’s wife.”

Walter Jacobson read Royko’s column with particular interest. He was irritated with Sneed because he had asked her to call her husband in New York for him a few days earlier, and she had refused. Jacobson felt this marriage between the Tribune and City Hall was an unhealthy one, and he intended to say so in a “Perspective.” Royko’s allegations, if true, were simply added ammunition. Jacobson called Royko to find out how solid Royko’s evidence was, and the news about Byrne’s role immediately satisfied him; I had three original sources, Royko said, and then the mayor confirmed what they told me.

On the Monday night after the second Royko column appeared, the mayor was in the WBBM-TV newsroom with Jacobson and Bill Kurtis and the heads of the school board and the teachers union, all embroiled in a railing discussion of the schools crisis. Before she left, Byrne chatted briefly with Jacobson about the “Perspective” he was about to deliver; he said it would be on Sneed and Griffin. According to someone listening in on the conversation, Jacobson told the mayor that he understood she had been Royko’s source, and the mayor smiled and said yes she had.

What in the world was going on here? Why was the mayor trying to undermine her own chief of staff? I asked Royko. “I’m no longer able to figure out what she’s doing or why she’s doing it—it’s such irrational conduct. Walter thinks it’s her method of sending a message to Brady or Griffin.” I put the same question to Harry Golden, the Sun-Times‘s City Hall reporter. “She is an unusual woman,” Golden said.

The one person who could best clear up this mystery was the mayor. And the mayor, when I visited her this week, denied that she had told either Royko or Jacobson any such thing. Royko misunderstood her, Byrne said; what she’d told Royko was that his first column had upset a lot of people around her office and it had upset their families too. “I’d have been a liar if I said they weren’t all swapping notes,” the mayor told me, speaking of her staff. “But nobody got his records. My conversation with Mike Royko was strictly in an explanatory vein. I said, “Yes, she [Sneed] is mad, yes, she’s really teed off, and at the same time I understand it.’ From what I saw of her here, Mike Sneed was not the type to be vindictive.”

So then … a simple misunderstanding? Not according to Royko, who doesn’t think he misunderstood the mayor, though he concedes “that’s always possible. She sometimes talks kind of in circles.” And not according to Jane Byrne, who told me she believes Royko has been fed misinformation by her political enemies.

“Michael,” she said, leaning forward at her desk, staring straight at me, “it’s very ugly. It’s as old as politics. Get the one at the top by getting the ones underneath in turmoil.”

Indeed, the very day after Jacobson delivered his “Perspective” censuring the Sneed-Griffin Tribune-City Hall axis, there fell over this saga the hand of the provocateur. If Mike Sneed had been mad at Royko, surely now she’d be just as mad at Jacobson. If she’d vowed to get Royko, surely she’d go after Jacobson, too. Jacobson was prepared to think along those lines, and he found it easy to believe the anonymous tipster who called him on the telephone Tuesday. The soft-spoken confidant, who identified himself as a Tribune employee, said that he’d witnessed Sneed storming around the newsroom vowing revenge, then rushing off to lunch with Griffin to hatch a plot. He felt he ought to call Jacobson and warn him, for Sneed, according to the tipster, was going to play dirty; she intended to get at Jacobson through is younger brother. The brother had been arrested several years ago on a child pornography charge—it was a subject Sneed had reported on extensively.

Whoever this mysterious caller was, he put in a busy day. For he also called Royko and told him the same story, and I don’t know what other journalists he called, and toward the end of the day he called me. “I have a reputation of being pretty quiet around here,” he said, “but, well, sometimes I say something.” He was just getting into the details when he abruptly said, “I have to hang up now, I’ll call you back”—and he didn’t.

Jacobson called Sneed. “There’s nothing you do I don’t hear about ten minutes later,” he said menacingly. And then Sneed told him that far from storming around the newsroom and plotting revenge with her husband over lunch, she’d pent the entire day in Michigan City, Indiana, on a story. She had just returned. She could prove it. A photographer was along. Jacobson could speak to the city editor. And suddenly Jacobson had that queasy feeling you get when you wonder if you haven’t figured something wrong. Griffin had emphatically denied to him that he’d done any investigating of Royko, and at this point, after the phony tip about Griffin’s wife, Jacobson was prepared to believe him.

Royko is not. When I talked to him earlier this week, he said he had it “on superb authority”—not just the mayor’s—that Griffin not only had begun poking around into his past but was still doing it. What about they mysterious caller? “There’s no question somebody is trying to stir something up,” Royko said. He didn’t know who, or what, but he considered that “it might even be somebody hoping Jacobson and I would go with the blind information and make fools of ourselves.” (But why did whoever it was call me?)

The mayor knows who her enemies are. She named three: Richie Daley, Neil Hartigan, and Phil Krone. Daley’s the late mayor’s son, and he’s running against the mayor’s man, alderman Ed Burke, for state’s attorney. Hartigan’s the former lieutenant governor and the retiring committeeman of the 49th Ward who can’t stand Mike Brady, who’s running under the mayor’s sponsorship to succeed him. Krone is an urbanologist and political consultant who’s a friend of both Hartigan and Daley; he’s a Carter candidate from the mayor’s own 7th District for delegate to the Democratic National convention, and Byrne cannot stand him.

“It’s not just this, it’s everything,” Byrne said, explaining that her enemies’ designs are not limited to disrupting her staff. “It’s this total step-by-step plan: is the city working anymore?” And in a reference to Daley, she went on, “if his father hadn’t been giving the whole damn city away, we wouldn’t be having these problems.” And in another reference to Daley: “There’s a paranoia about the loss of power.”

Phil Krone was Royko’s source for the Griffin story, the mayor intimated; she figured as much because she’d learned that Krone and Royko had had breakfast together recently. What’s more, she’d learned that Krone had tried to set up a lunch with both Royko and Daley.

I asked Royko. He said flatly that Krone was not his source. He said of the original source, “I can’t think of any remotely possible way he can be connected with Daley, Hartigan, or any of her political enemies. In away, he’s above politics.” He said that breakfast had been a brunch, several persons attending, and he said it was true that Krone had tried to bring Daley and him together, since they hadn’t met, and he had declined “and jokingly mentioned that to Jay.” This was when McMullen was still working for the Sun-Times.

“Now I will have lunch with Richie,” Royko said.

Corroborating what Royko said, Krone said he was in no position to know what goes on inside City Hall, and anyway, Griffin’s “a friend. I think he’s a terrific person. He’s one of the more sensible people in City Hall.” Someone who knows both men confirmed that Krone likes Griffin, and also told me Krone likes the mayor too and would have been a Kennedy delegate if they mayor had just asked him.

Whatever it is Royko was told Griffin had been doing doesn’t amount to much, according to Royko, just poking through some old court records that are public information anyway. But Griffin insists he hasn’t been. “You’re not going to discredit a newsman by proving he drinks too much and gets into a fistfight,” Griffin said reasonably. With that, Royko agrees. “If they’re going poking around in my background, let them poke. Since my wife died, there’s just nobody they can embarrass me with.”

Griffin said he was told by McMullen, who listened to his wife’s end of her telephone conversation with Royko, that the mayor defended him. Griffin thinks Royko’s information came from political enemies. “Some of them are sore and vicious.” an independent source suggested that whatever Griffin did or did not do, it would be wiser to look to Griffin’s enemies, but not necessarily the mayor’s, for an explanation of how the subject wound up in print. The intriguing question is whether those enemies include the mayor herself, whose husband has been poaching upon some of Griffin’s old authority. “Jay clearly wins any test of power,” said Harry Golden.

Jane Byrne said she’s heard the rumors that “because Jay is here, Griffin is on his way out. Nothing’s further from the truth.” If only because the mayor doesn’t always seem to be certain where the truth actually is, we shall have to wait and see. I’m not at all sure myself where in this episode the truth lies, although I’m certain of several points where it doesn’t. Let me add one last thing: I have friends who know Sneed and Griffin well as a couple, and they tell me it is inconceivable that she’d be telling him what to do and he’d be doing it. I believe them.


The Reader at 40: 1980

Forty Years: A weekly series in which we take a look at a specific year in Chicago history via the pages of the Reader.