Voice Transplant at the Sun-Times

Any newspaper worth its salt carries a resident curmudgeon, a world-weary cynic who inside each bright new bottle can make out the same old rotgut. Ray Coffey will now preach this timeless wisdom four days a week on page three of the Sun-Times.

“As a newsman,” Mark Hornung, who’s 32, was saying about Coffey, who’s 63, “I really respect his skepticism toward people who purport to stand up for virtue and good and saving the world when in fact they have personal agendas.

“That doesn’t mean we see the world the same way,” Hornung went on. “It doesn’t mean we react the same way. But it’s an honor to work with him.”

And an honor to succeed him. As a columnist, Coffey will remain on the Sun-Times’s editorial board, but he won’t run it anymore. In a startling break with newspaper tradition, editor Dennis Britton has given the august post of editor of the editorial pages to Hornung, a young cocky outsider.

We hope page three is well served by these changes. The editorial pages should be. Hornung spent his first full day at the Sun-Times last Friday; on Monday he told us, “I feel there isn’t an energy level here that there is at the rest of the paper.” That’s nothing new. Over the decades Sun-Times front pages have sent politicians to prison, but its editorials rarely cost anyone any sleep. The paper’s vitality has always expressed itself in other places.

But now Hornung says he wants to stop opining dutifully on yesterday’s events and make the editorials “more proactive and forward-looking.” Do you want to set a civic agenda? we asked him. “Absolutely!” By age and temperament Hornung appears vastly more inclined than his predecessor to project his paper, his city, and himself well into the 21st century and speculate usefully on the wiser and more foolish ways of getting there.

“Hopefully,” he told us, “we can be a very coherent and consistent voice on five or six of the most important issues.” He’s already made his list. At the top of it–at least he mentioned this issue first and had more to say about it than any of the others–is taxes.

“Our tax system absolutely stinks,” he said. “We’re way overdependent on property taxes. Go through the foreclosure lists weekly and you’ll see the number of houses foreclosed upon in white working-class neighborhoods. It’s astonishing. You can’t tell me a regressive antijobs tax system isn’t throwing some people over the brink. Those of us privileged to earn more ought to pay more out of our incomes. This ain’t rocket science.”

A city income tax? we wondered.

“I don’t think one’s necessary,” Hornung said. “I think one would be destructive. You can’t do socialism in one city. The way you do it, once you start increasing the state income tax you start designating it for some off-balance-sheet accounting pool to enable municipalities to offer tax relief on a dollar-for-dollar basis.”

What Hornung is talking about is a “grand bargain” that would have to be cut between Republicans and Democrats, Chicago and Springfield, Cook County and downstate. Into that mix he’d insert the people’s champion, the Sun-Times, knocking heads with new vigor and authority.

The other five issues on Hornung’s list? Schools, public safety, race relations, economic development, and public health. “We will be saying something soon and often about the whole health-care debate,” he said. “We will not be silent as Hillary’s about to decide the future of the nation’s health care.”

Before taking his new job, Hornung described his Sun-Times agenda in long conversations with Britton and publisher Sam McKeel. “They were very enthusiastic,” Hornung told us. “Basically, our politics will be populist, antielitist, antibureaucratic. Our economics will be market oriented–some will say slightly conservative. And on social policy we’ll be laissez-faire–some will say somewhat liberal. This will enable us to be feisty and a little bit unpredictable, which is what we want as well.”

That’s the paper. As for Hornung himself, “Clearly I’m a little bit to the left of where Dennis and Ray might be,” he said. “But I’m not the minister of truth here. No one at this paper is. My own political ideology is that I’m kind of a left-wing libertarian. I basically believe in most of the goals of postwar liberalism, but I have little faith in government to either execute or realize those goals. So I’d like to see private or market-oriented solutions.”

Hornung met Britton about ten years ago on a media tour of Germany, when Hornung was at UPI and Britton was an editor of the Los Angeles Times. “He was the only person in a management position,” Hornung recalled, “and I was the only one who didn’t ask him for anything. I spoke German and he kind of liked to be around me. We babbled away about newspapers, literature, journalism.”

They kept in touch. By late 1989, which is when Britton arrived at the Sun-Times, Hornung held a master’s in political science from the University of Chicago and was winning awards with his coverage of business and public finance for Crain’s Chicago Business. He and Britton began meeting occasionally for lunch. “I was full of ideas and full of myself,” Hornung told us.

Now that Hornung has joined the editorial board and Coffey hasn’t formally left it, the board stands at seven members–not enough. Only one member is a woman and only one member is black. Hornung wants to add two people–“both preferably female, at least one of them preferably minority.” Did Britton promise you anything? we asked him. “He knows I think the editorial section is understaffed,” Hornung said. “Whether he thinks it’s more of a priority than other areas of the paper, I don’t know. And frankly, if the answer is no I don’t want to hear it right now.”

It’s up to Hornung to decide what the op-ed pages carry. “I want local columnists,” he said. He’ll hang on to Evans and Novak and Carl Rowan because they’re identified with the Sun-Times, and George Will because a lot of readers follow him. But “I don’t see a very compelling reason to keep many other beltway guys. I’d like to give some internal people first choice.” (So adios to Otis Pike, Jeff Greenfield, Suzanne Fields, Charles Osgood . . . ?)

When Hornung’s appointment was announced, a colleague at Crain’s heard from a Sun-Times reporter who felt the veterans there had just been slapped in the face. Hornung can see why. “A lot of line people, newsies, see it as a signal Dennis and Sam want to move this paper forward and are willing to take some risks,” he said. “But some veterans have been through some awful times and can interpret my coming over here as another instance of their interests being bypassed or not regarded.

“There are only two things I can do about that. One–perform, making the editorial page something they can be proud of. And two–get a little older. Which I’m working on.”

Crime of a Generation

Thank you, Zoe Baird. Your fiasco has flooded us with memories.

From time to time our three daughters have stood in need of day care, their parents being–though not by choice–careerists. One applicant explained in a letter, “I’m staying with my parents, but would like to be more on my own. I hope you understand my situation.” He enclosed a business card inscribed “Good Rockin . . . Tonite!” and a photograph of himself with his girlfriend. His primary line of work was Elvis impersonator.

Eventually we hired an Irish miss who showed up for the interview carrying her bags. We had not intended to offer her the job just yet, but an eager applicant without sideburns that stretch to the mandible does enjoy the upper hand when a day-care post becomes vacant. She moved into a room in the attic.

Like every day-care worker we’ve ever known or heard of, she expected to be paid off the books.

One Monday morning about a month later we were sipping coffee with our wife waiting for the new nanny to come downstairs and take over. Time went by. When we knocked on her attic door the room was empty. She had cleared out the night before while the family was out walking the Halloween trail at North Park Village. A friend of hers informed us she was homesick and had gone back to Ireland, but a few days later she turned up in a Lake Shore Drive high rise watching one child at three times the money.

Earlier there’d been a relationship with an unlicensed day-care collective that–like so many of these rogue, lawless operations–involved men and women of spotless reputation and a struggling church with an empty room. One of the hired workers maintained a sympathetic relationship with the FALN, an affiliation of Puerto Rican freedom fighters many of whose leaders had just been rounded up for terrorist activities. This worker came by our house with a proposition: Would we mind asking the bank for a loan in the tens of thousands of dollars–putting up our house as security? He was raising bail.

We did mind. Yet a part of us hated to say no; he was so wonderful with children.

Zoe Baird was swallowed up by a yawning class divide that appeared overnight. Nevertheless, almost everyone we know, rich or poor, is ready to deal with the devil if the devil will supply someone competent to watch the kids. Now that reporters have been handed a new crime of the week–hiring illegal help–they can get to work. Starting with themselves, they can grill every parent of a certain age in the public eye. They’d decapitate a generation.

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