The Radical Royko

A retrospective collection reminds us what made him great in the first place.

By Ben Joravsky

It’s been over two years since Mike Royko died, so it’s easy to forget what he wrote to earn his reputation.

But the recently published collection One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko is a refreshing reminder. From his first to his last, it’s got 110 columns–almost 34 years of daily writing.

Rereading the columns makes one irony clear. Despite his influence (almost every journalist over 35 claims him as an influence), there’s no one remotely like him out there today.

Certainly no mainstream columnist has his politics. He was unapologetically left of center, almost radical. He had none of the mushy on-the-one-hand-this-on-the-other-hand-that of so many liberal columnists, who write as though they’re ashamed of their beliefs. “Mike let you know where he stood,” says Lois Wille, the retired Tribune editor who wrote the biographical essays in One More Time. “He was honest.”

He opposed, for instance, virtually every war the USA waged in his adult life, from Vietnam to Desert Storm–“He had a streak of pacifism,” says Wille. Again and again he railed against the inequity of rich men sending poor and working-class boys to die, while their own sons stayed at home. He insulted the provincialism and bigotry of suburbia and mocked the Tribune as a right-wing organ for the rich. He taunted Mayor Richard J. Daley (the “great dumpling,” he called him), poking fun at his language, neighborhood, children, and political machine.

He loved to expose the hypocrisy of the mighty. Chicago, he wrote many times, is a corrupt city where the strong exploit the weak and the rich rob the poor. “This town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops came,” he wrote.

In column after column he wrote about the little guy getting screwed by the hacks and nitwits who run City Hall. They should change the city’s motto from Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden) to Ubi Est Mea (Where’s Mine?), he wrote. “It is the watchword of the new Chicago, the cry of the money brigade, the chant of the city of the big wallet.”

He wrote a parable about Mary and Joseph coming to Chicago only to be run out of town by Urban Renewal. Upon the unveiling of the Picasso statue, he wrote that it was ideal for this city because its “pitiless, cold, mean” eyes are “like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak.”

“I love that column,” says David Royko, one of his sons. “It has a wicked shift. He starts with this funny, very sarcastic view of the politicians watching the unveiling. Then it shifts and the knife goes in and he guts his target. That last line–‘Picasso has never been here, they say. You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life’–it’s just brilliant.”

He got away with such devilry in part because he was so funny (he mocked everyone, especially himself) and so good (Wille describes how Royko slaved over each column, going through several different drafts) and so on target. He was born and raised in the Polish neighborhood around Milwaukee and Division (his father ran a tavern), and he wrote about the working-class people he knew, like Beer Belly Frank Grobnik, who “claimed his stomach was the secret of his legendary strength and agility,” and Walter, who ran an “academy of music” next to the “Exterminating Store on Milwaukee Avenue” and suckered parents into buying accordions they didn’t need by telling them their kid “was a genius and should own his own instrument,” and the Irishman who accidentally drank the czernina, a broth made of duck blood that his Ukrainian mother-in-law made. “When he later learned the truth about czernina…the shock was severe. He even went to his priest to ask if he had done something wrong. The priest told him that as long as the blood was from a duck, and not from a Protestant, it was OK. But for a long time, he sat up late at night wondering if he was going to turn into a bat.”

He made no attempt to romanticize the old neighborhood. He knew many of the good ol’ boys at the local tavern were bigots who hated blacks and Jews, drank themselves silly, and came home late and beat their wives.

For his efforts he got hundreds of outraged letters. He never got over how literal minded readers could be, missing the point of sarcasm, irony, and parody. Sometimes he got letters from Polish-American groups accusing him of betrayal. “They believed that because many of his [down-and-out] characters were Polish Algren was presenting them in a poor light. I guess they would have preferred that he write a novel about a Polish dentist who changed his name and moved from the old neighborhood to a suburb as soon as he made enough money.” Royko wrote that about his old friend Nelson Algren, but he could have written it about himself.

His greatest stand came on matters of race. In the 60s and 70s many conservative columnists soft-soaped the bigotry of working-class whites. Not Royko. He called them what they were: closed-minded, prejudiced, and hate filled. He endorsed open housing and school busing, exposed discrimination, and sympathized with poor blacks. (In one column he wrote about slum conditions that had “emotionally brutalized young men of the high ghettos.”)

“Hypocrites all over this country would kneel every Sunday morning and mouth messages to Jesus Christ,” he wrote after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. “Then they would come out and tell each other, after reading the papers, that somebody should string up King, who was living Christianity like few Americans ever have.”

These columns stirred some white readers to violence. “I remember people picketing our house [on the northwest side],” says David Royko. “I remember people egging the house. I remember when the brick came through the window because of some pro-King column my father wrote. It landed fairly close to the bed where I slept.”

For most of his career he was a liberal favorite. But the line on Royko changed in the late 80s. As the years wore on, he had less patience for liberal explanations for society’s ills and less sympathy for its “emotionally brutalized young men.” He mocked political correctness, feminists, and gays the way he’d once mocked old man Daley. He’d been critical of antiwar protesters even during the 60s– “Just how many of these conscience-tormented young men are more tormented by the thought of being roused out of bed at 5 A.M. by a drill sergeant than by the thought of a burned village, we’ll never know.” He was no less merciless now that many of them had so predictably joined the establishment. In some ways he was like his description of the first Mayor Daley, an old-fashioned father figure “who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head.”

His friends and family defend his late work. But his point of view must have changed. His perspective wasn’t the same. He had moved to the suburbs (Winnetka, no less) and gone to work for the Tribune (he said it wasn’t as bad as it used to be). He did less reporting (becoming less of an investigative columnist and more of a pundit) and hardly ever wrote about City Hall. More of his columns showed a streak of sadness, as he wrote about the deaths of friends and times past. He took no delight when machine hacks like Dan Rostenkowski went to jail for corruption. He wrote so many nice things about the second Mayor Daley that people wondered if he felt a little sorry for having been so hard on his old man. He made up with Jesse Jackson and other old adversaries. Perhaps he wanted to make amends as he got older.

In February 1996 he ignited protests with a satirical column about Mexico, immigration, and Patrick Buchanan’s xenophobia. It clearly wasn’t one of his best (it’s not in the anthology). Was he making fun of Buchanan or Mexicans? It wasn’t clear. The only good thing that came out of it was that once again he’d exposed the hypocrisy of Chicago politicians–in this case the sellouts and bootlickers who marched down to the Tribune Tower to protest.

After that column a lot of younger journalists wrote him off as a cantankerous old coot. The criticism was painful for his older readers to stomach; most remained loyal defenders to the end. “I can’t pretend to be objective, but I know that Mexico column wasn’t one of his better efforts,” says David Royko. “Look, the man wrote 8,000 columns. Some were better than others. For the most part they were outstanding.”

He was thinking of retiring. “He thought about writing fiction, along the lines of John D. MacDonald,” says Judy Royko, his widow. “He had started a mystery years ago. But unfortunately it got erased from the computer. If he had time to retire I think he’d have picked it up.”

In March 1997 he suffered an aneurysm and was taken to a hospital for brain surgery. “In the hospital he said he wanted to put together a final collection of his columns,” says Judy Royko.

He never got the chance. He died on April 29. A few months later Judy Royko gathered some of his closest friends to complete the task. “It turns out that Mike was a bit of a pack rat,” she says. “He had kept all of his columns, all 8,000 of them.”

After several months of reading, they whittled the 8,000 down to the 110. “We wanted a balance between humor and outrage and touching and national and local,” says Wille. “We wanted some Slats Grobnik and some autobiographical. We wanted to do it chronologically, going from the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and 90s.”

Wille says she realizes that some of the younger journalists at the Tribune never understood Royko’s legacy and felt he was out of touch. “But there were also younger people like Mary Schmich and John Kass who were serious about the profession and would have known about books like Boss and Mike’s impact on Chicago politics,” she says. “It just depends on how smart you are. If they were smart and knew their craft and paid attention to politics and had a sense of history, then they would appreciate what he did.”

The anthology includes his first column (September 6, 1963) and his last (March 21, 1997). The last one, about Cubs management, has its ups and downs. He’s a little too quick to forgive the Tribune Company for the mess it’s made of the team. But he exposes the timidity of previous owners who didn’t sign black ballplayers because they didn’t want to enrage white bigots. That was vintage Royko, reminding readers of the injustices we might have avoided had the rich and powerful not been so afraid. Just in case anyone forgot.

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