Four years and about four months ago, some people I know went off on a lark. They went to work for Jane Byrne, who was running for mayor. Her well-wishers felt as warmly about her crusade as you can feel about anything you believe has no chance of success.
Time has tarnished Jane Byrne’s image but burnished the memory of that race. It was simple and idealistic and true-blue. It was also historic: Jane Byrne defeated the machine and she did it the old-fashioned way—conquering it and making it hers. And so out of that election this latest one was born, and every tasteless excess of the 1983 campaigning deepened the glow of innocence that lingers from 1979.
Sorry to say, but when my friends Paul McGrath and Karen Conner invited me to a reception they were having for Jane Byrne back around Christmas of 1978, I thought “Well … ” and never made it up to their West Rogers Park apartment. Don Rose did, and so did history. This is the history I have asked these people I know to talk about, as Jane Byrne’s era ends.
Don Rose has defeated the Democratic Machine before, but never mortally. Back in 1972, he ran Bernard Carey against State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan and licked him. He reelected Carey in 1976, but his most recent candidate, Donald Mulack, had lost to Richard Elrod in the race for sheriff in November 1980. Rose wasn’t running Republicans because he was one—far from it. He wanted to crack the machine wide open, and Republicans were the ones hitting their heads against it.
“Jay McMullen and I had been friends for 20 years, and we chitchatted about a lot of things,” Rose said recently, when I asked him to reminisce. “We would talk about her candidacy and vaguely chat that if I didn’t run a candidate of my own, Harold Washington or something like that, I would help out in this campaign. I went to a party at Paul McGrath’s to meet her and shortly after, a day or two, I got a call from her. She said she wanted me to come up and help.”
Paul McGrath had lost his job as a Sun-Times reporter early in 1978 when the Daily News folded and employees of both papers were laid off. He knew Jane Byrne already—he’d covered her when he was a reporter and she was consumer sales commissioner, and he’d worked closely with her on a series of articles on Chicago’s taxicabs. Now, with the mayoral election coming on, McGrath was at loose ends.
“I knew her long enough and well enough, I think, to know that the things she was saying—it wasn’t an act,” McGrath said. “It wasn’t just some put-on. There is a record that goes back many years of her consistently acting very nobly in the public interest. It’s in the clips. You can go read about it.
“I went to interview her for a piece I was doing in the fall of ’78 [on Tom Donovan, Mayor Bilandic’s patronage chief]. And she asked me to join the campaign. And I told her I couldn’t because I had made a commitment to do this story [for Chicago magazine]. But I had a party for her at my house to try to introduce her to some people. And as things went on, I finished with that Donovan piece and kind of got drawn into it because there was just a need.
“She didn’t have anybody. She was alone. And throwing out the rascals was something that many people had worked all their lives towards doing. as journalists or politically or whatever.”
Karen Conner was doing public relations when she met Jane Byrne. But she wasn’t very busy, and Byrne gave her a chance to get a lot busier.
“I started taking care of the telephones when I walked in the door,” Conner said. “and then I moved into scheduling and answering requests for appearances. Her brother [Ed Burke] had lent his lawyer’s office at 53 W. Jackson so we just took over. I don’t know if he got any work done ever, because everybody was using his Xeroxes, sleeping on the couch, turning the place upside down practically. We all took turns sleeping on the couch.”
What attracted you to Jane Byrne? I asked.
“I don’t know,” Conner said. “I think it was because she was an underdog and sparked an interest. And I was down at the Board of Trade anyway, doing public relations. So I called and offered. I felt it was a struggle, an interesting one, that she needed help.”
Did you like her?
“I was intrigued,” Conner said carefully. “I saw nothing that disturbed me early on, nothing that I couldn’t live with. It was a battle that we all sort of brought together to fight, and it was exciting. It felt like we were doing something. It was altruistic on my part; I think it was altruistic on everybody’s part.”
Scott Jacobs shot the TV commercials for Donald Mulack, and now Don Rose called on him again. Like McGrath, Jacobs had been a Sun-Times reporter. Now he was fitfully pursuing a career shooting video.
“Jane was on the outs. She had something to prove,” Jacobs recalled. “And she collected around her people who were on the outs and had something to prove. There was Don Rose, kind of permanently on the outs. There was Paul McGrath. And Karen—basically she moved into the Byrne headquarters. I don’t think I’d been particularly successful. I left the paper in ’76 and had been doing video, which nobody quite understood what I was doing and I didn’t quite understand what I was doing.
“The involvement with Jane Byrne for me began right after the November election when I talked to Rose. Both he and I were saying to each other, what would be really great would be to get the Jane Byrne candidacy. And a couple of days after Christmas he called up and said, ‘Guess what?’
“The only input I had in the entire campaign was this little memo that said, ‘The only thing everybody in the world know is Jane Byrne has guts. That’s what our commercials should say. This lady has guts. She’s real tough. Put her name out there. We have no money. Let’s find a campaign issue late in the campaign and be as current as we can be and use video in a newsy kind of way.'”
Conner: “I never saw it in the press, but a large percentage of the campaign workers were black. I think there was a concerted effort to capture them and to work with the blacks and get the black votes. The workers were street-smart. They were basically newcomers in the political scene as we all were. And very energetic. Jewish, elderly, young—every nationality, every color … The people that gravitated towards her were people that basically had no experience, no political experience.”
McGrath: “It’s been said that Jesse Jackson was a supporter. I don’t think that’s true. He never joined up per se. I mean, I only recall him visiting the office one time—that was after the election. The black support that she had was black voters. On the street. Who did the unthinkable. They did it twice now. I mean it practically brings tears to your eyes to think about the fact—here you have these people coming out in the face of guns and knives and clubs in massive number to defy the political machine and throw them out. And at enormous risk. The blacks are the true independents and have been for years. That was the black support she had.”
Rose: “The campaign attracted a lot of volunteers, quite remarkable. Relatively few were people I’d seen in other campaigns. Most of them were young, had taken a fancy to Byrne, and were performing one or another task. Most of them didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, and I’d sort of put them together.”
Jacobs: “The first time I called her I said ‘Hi Jane, this is Scott Jacobs. You don’t know me but I’m going to make your political commercials,’ and she said, ‘Oh, what do you want me to do?’ I said, “Why don’t you tell me a couple places where you’re going in your campaign?’ ‘Well, I’ll be at the Norwood Park Lions Club.’ She had very little campaign. She had no stops scheduled. She had nothing really together. This was like January 1.
“At the time she hired Don Rose she had about $5,000 in her campaign chest. They put a mortgage on their house for $75,000 which paid the media buy. Her brother was the campaign chairman. The production costs of her election commercials were like $3,500. We rented a camera for one day and just took her places and got her with people. Sixty-third and Halsted … Sheridan and Diversey … And then we just stuck her in the snow. It was not very much of a script. She did very well with people. We used more of the people stuff because she was on the street and feisty, and people were responding to it because of the snow.”
“The thing I liked,” said Karen Conner, reminiscing about Jane Byrne’s platform in 1979, “was basically the open government, the open-door policy, knowing what’s going on in City Hall. Having good people—promising to bring in the best and change things. The neighborhoods were an issue, which I thought was absolutely a priority. Instead of just downtown. Making changes. It was a marvelous opportunity for change. And I believed it.”
Rose: “She had little lines that she would use on people as she’d shake hands. ‘I’ll never let you down.’ Just the grossest of platitudes, but she worked a crowd very well. Just oozed sincerity.”
“Yeah, I think she was sincere,” Rose said. “The Jane Byrne I knew through the primary was certainly idiosyncratic and maybe slightly eccentric, but no more than any other candidate I’ve ever worked with. You have to run for office in the first place. It’s a terrible thing to do and it takes a marginal personality. But I swear I saw none of what would subsequently be bizarre behavior on her part. I think a lot of that happened after she won the primary, quite unexpectedly, and in effect was destabilized and overwhelmed by what happened. But I didn’t think she was that strange. I didn’t have any great illusions. I knew from whence she came.
“Actually,” Rose said, “I thought that she was a lot more retiring and anxious and modest than I had been led to believe. I began to realize more and more that the flamboyant statements and actions that I’d seen were Jay’s work. She was like so many of the Irish politicians I know of that school—relatively soft-spoken, cryptic, able to read gestures wonderfully. I remember I was always having trouble with her hair because it’s very fine and unmanageable. It’s really got to be changed every two hours. And I kept talking about fixing her hair because I didn’t want her looking different every day or so. One day I walked in and it was very neat, sort of the way I wanted to see it, and I just looked at her without a word, and she said, ‘It’s a wig.’ I didn’t say anything about hair—she just read it. That’s something we used to call speaking Irish, the way those guys can communicate with each other with eyebrows, gestures, with less visible signs than anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. And she spoke Irish very well. A lot of our conversations were short. I never had to explain very much. She was a very good study—once I gained her confidence.
I asked Rose how he did that.
“I think the major time was at the radio studio when we went to make her first spots. She was very anxious about these radio spots. She went in and started reading, and I called her out of the studio and I explained to her that radio is a very personal medium—you are talking to somebody in the most intimate possible circumstances, and you talk, you don’t read. And that was kind of a revelation to her. She did wonderful readings. We cut four one-minute spots, and when they were played back she liked them. I look upon that as the moment that she decided I knew what the fuck I was doing.”
Jacobs: “The snow issue was like an accidental issue. It was one of those acts of nature. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t capitalized on, that it wasn’t used well. Don Rose capitalized on it. It was the issue we were waiting for. We didn’t shoot [that commercial] until January 28 or something—it was late. We had the camera rented for one day, and it was snowing out. My initial impression was—’Don, we’re going to have trouble if we shoot this commercial and all the snow melts by February 22.’ But we had no other choice. We couldn’t afford to rent the camera for another day.
“There were three [TV] commercials. And I made one more commercial that never ran, the snowball commercial. A little ten-second spot. I went out and took a ‘Bilandic for Mayor’ sign and I put his picture on it and we posted it on a street sign, covered about halfway with snow. And we threw a snowball at it. So the thing opens with this Bilandic poster that says ‘Bilandic for Mayor’ and I got ‘Splat!’ Then it said ‘Fight back! Vote Jane Byrne, Democrat, for mayor.’ That idea was behind every single spot we’d done. She’s a fighter. She’ll take the fight to them. It was her brother who finally kiboshed it. He said, we’re not going to run it, it’s too negative and it just gives them an opening to come back and say it’s a vicious campaign. If the campaign were being run now, that’s not a particularly vicious thing to do … “
Where was Jay?
Conner: “I personally never say him. I would just assume that he probably didn’t have much to do with it, unless he supported her in the background. At home or something.”
McGrath: “He was significantly invisible. He didn’t give her emotional support. He wasn’t physically present. He thought she was being very foolish and he made no secret of it. There are some things he did. He helped her write some speeches and stuff. But basically he was not present. He just thought that she was wasting her time. As soon as she won the election he moved in.”
Rose: “Jay is very, very enthusiastic-sounding always. He is an upper kind of guy. But I think he thought it was a long shot. He was always very upbeat about it, and I think part of his upbeatness was due to the fact that Jane was getting a lot of publicity. There were these bumper stickers saying ‘I believe in Jane Byrne,’ which I think Jay had printed.
“He was not visible at all. He was working in the Sun-Times real estate section during the fall, and obviously he couldn’t play a public role. But he was doing the writing and suggesting. On two occasions I called upon him to do some work. Once to give me some drafts of material he thought should be used for brochures and radio. Then, very late in the campaign, there was a major story we had breaking about some defects in the Grant Park underground garage. We had a highly confidential source, and I had Jay interview him and write the stuff.
“Jay was the voice-over on our TV commercials and on radio commercials in addition to hers. AFTRA [the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] was on strike at the time so I couldn’t hire some of the people I’d hoped to use. Ken Nordine had volunteered, but he couldn’t do it because of the strike, so we used Jay McMullen. I don’t know what their private life was, but …
“She has said in subsequent years that ‘Even Jay didn’t think I could win.’ I never witnessed that. All our conversations were very, very upbeat.”
Could that be how she prefers to remember it, I asked, that she did it all by herself?
“Oh, that’s clear,” Rose said. “Because she’s said that Done Rose didn’t think it could be done, and she has sort of created a story, which I absolutely do not recall, about having lunch with someone where I told her it couldn’t be done. I do remember telling her—I didn’t think we were going to win, or come very close, until the very last week. But I had told Jane—she raved about the crowds around her all the time; she thought she was certain to win—I said, maybe you’ll win, but you have to remember something about crowds: Everybody loves a candidate. If you lose with 30 percent of the vote, that’s still a couple of hundred thousand people who are for you. And therefore you’re going to get crowds on a street corner, because on a street corner you’re talking about 50 people. Somehow she converted that into my being discouraging and saying she couldn’t win. Yes, I think she does tend to reorganize the facts.”
McGrath: “As soon as she won the election, Jay moved in. Immediately. Election night. We were up in the suite in the Ambassador West and Jay said he’s going downstairs. She begged him not to go. She begged him not to go downstairs and be in front of the TV cameras. She didn’t think it was right. It wasn’t right. He went. And he made a big fool of himself and of her. He shot his mouth off on all the TV channels, very much the way some of Washington’s supporters did on election night. And from then on, he was right there. As he walked to work in the morning, he held a hiring hall. People would come up to him and he’d hire them, put them on the payroll.”
Conner: “As I remember, he did go down and held a press conference. And I thought that was really not very respectful of somebody that had just stood on el platforms for a year. I think if it were me, and if I had worked so hard, I’d have pulled the bodyguards over and said, ‘Put him in the bathroom and pick him up later.'”
Jacobs: “That election night, I had Cindy Neal go in with a black-and-white camera in Jane’s headquarters, and we shot all of her election-night stuff. It’s a very odd portrait of Jane Byrne. She’s complaining about people tearing at her hands—’I can’t wait to get my wig off.’ It was fascinating. To be up there at 10-11 o’clock and see the momentum turn, and all of a sudden there’s commander so-and-so. The first people who start arriving are the cops—the different district commanders started showing up. And then the heads of the city unions come in. One of them who walked in was Hal Wallace, who had made Daley’s commercials. ‘Hal Wallace! I haven’t seen you for two years, it was at that cheap old chicken-and-rice dinner they had for Bilandic a couple years ago.” It was very much a moment of triumph for her.”
From the tape his team shot that election night, Jacobs made a 20-minute documentary that ran on Channel 11. Now he fished it out and hooked it into his machine.
There was Jay McMullen on the TV screen, having the time of his life.
Well, it’s going to be very close,” he was saying, “and you never know what’s going to happen. As I was just telling her, those paper ballot precincts that they’ve got worry me, because they can play an awful lot of kinky games. I’ve seen it happen in the past, and I’ve been covering elections for 30 years.
“I’m very proud of Janey,” he boomed. “She’s a real trooper and a real fighter. Eleven months; that’s a long campaign.”
“What did you do?” said his unseen interrogator.
“Well, I tried to bolster her up and give her a little advice,” McMullen drawled, “and have dinner ready when she came home—oh, sure! I’m a pretty good chef. I was a bachelor for five years. If you don’t learn to cook in five years as a bachelor, you have a tendency to starve to death.”
“Yeah? What’s your specialty?”
“Oh, I do great seafood, broiled chicken, roasts. I do anything!”
And there was Jane Byrne, all strung out. “They made me walk—I walked 15 miles today. Fifteen! Can you believe? I have no hands—” Byrne was talking as much to herself as to anybody else “—look at those hands! One long nail, broken nails! People were sticking me … grabbed me … taking rings off … I had to go get Novocain injections. Honest, you don’t know! I have no face. I’ve gotten about two hours of sleep in the last four days. My mouth is all swollen.”
And there she was again, muttering in a solipsistic daze: “I beat the machine, single-handedly.”
Conner: “It’s something you can’t describe. You walk into a building and you’re nobody. And no one knows your name. No one cares who you are. Fifteen minutes later—you’re part of the administration … . I saw a person that I was very close to absolutely weep at the victory. I mean, just tears! And for the ten years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him cry over anything. Sad things have happened in people’s lives and never a tear. But this created an overwhelming weeping for joy. But I did not feel this way myself. I did not feel moved to tears. Maybe I realized this was not it, there was more to come.
“To give you an example of the difference a switch of power can make—there was a gentleman who hung around the office, a sweet man, he wore a T-shirt with a yellow duck on it and he was in his 40s. His mother took care of him, and every day he would come in and just be there. Totally accepted, part of us. He was a very strange person but I liked him a great deal.
“We would go to rallies and I’d be driving, it’d be in the rain, and I’d see him, and the rally would be four miles from 53 W. Jackson, and I’d pull up and say, ‘Come on! Get in the car with me.’ ‘I can’t, no, thank you. I’ll see you at the office.’ So he walked in the rain. It dawned on me that he was told never to get in a car by his mother, even though he knew me. We had and understanding and he never did … .
“The night of the election, she’s won, and I’m making arrangements because she was coming down with the family—and so we were creating this line of campaign workers. And he came over and said, ‘Karen, Karen, help me, help me!’ He said, ‘They want me out.’ I said, who? He said, the police. She had won, and the cops swarmed in the door. And so I walked over to the policeman and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and he said, ‘This guy doesn’t belong here. He’s weird. I’m getting him out of here.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand, he’s part of this campaign.’ I said, ‘I will take responsibility for this. Move out of the way.’ So I took him and put him in line next to me. He said thank you. But he knew ahead of time! He knew that it would change—and it did change. There it was! Better throw those people out that didn’t look like they belonged. And the police were making that determination. Power!”
McGrath: “She had sort of been like a little girl who was sitting for 15 years watching her uncles play poker, and they kept saying, ‘Get away, little girl.’ Then all of a sudden she had an opportunity to join the game and be the preeminent player. And I think that was a very powerful influence in overpowering whatever her previous feelings of idealism might have been. Because she very quickly—she dropped the volunteers who worked in that campaign, dropped them dead. They didn’t hear from her. One day the office was open, one day it was closed.
“Over her objections, I sent thank-you letters to some of the people. And even later on, a couple of years later, when I was trying to organize [for the ’83 race], we set up parties and invited a lot of the volunteers who had worked in that first campaign, many of whom were very bitter because they’d never heard anything. I thought it was a bad thing to be going into another campaign with hundreds of people out there bad-mouthing you for your ingratitude.
“So we invited those people to these parties and she didn’t like it. She didn’t want to see those people. She did not want to be reminded of her origins, the fact that she had been helped by them. She’s much more comfortable with giving something to you than being in a position of accepting something. If you went to her and said ‘I’d like exclusive rights to put a toll gate on the Michigan Avenue bridge,’ she’s say fine. And feel good about you for it. But if you do something for her, she’s awfully uneasy … “
Rose: “All the volunteers, she had no use for them anymore. In one respect she was correct in saying that 99-1/2 percent of these people were not potentially substantial people for government positions … but she cut them off even more than that.
“It was ice. Overnight. I suspect part of it was the fact she was trying to make up to the party bosses and wanted none of these antiparty people visible and close to her. I wanted to have a big party for all the volunteers. She pissed on that. Just amazing. She just no longer wanted to be associated with this element.”
What else changed overnight?
“The personality really changed quite dramatically within a week or ten days. It became increasingly difficult to talk to her. You certainly couldn’t get her to relax and talk the same language we talked before. She became distant, aloof, short-tempered, in many ways more businesslike. Really another person—very rapidly. She started lying. She knew the committeemen didn’t like me around, and there I was with an office with a name on the door right next to hers, which I was inhabiting three to six hours a day, and she made some comment on television —he’s not involved anymore. And this was a public comment for the committeemen or whatever the hell. Every time she’d run into what would seem to be any trouble from the committeemen, she was just making up stories. And some of the lies were appalling.”
Was she falling into the arms of the people she’d identified as her enemies, or did she reach out and embrace them?
McGrath: “That, of course, is the central question of this administration. There were legitimate factors; I mean, you may not like these people, but if you look in the history books, I don’t think you find rulers of city-states or rulers of nations successfully governing by only dealing with nice people. You have to deal with power as it exists, not as you would wish it to be.
“They caused her enormous problems in the beginning. They have influence in areas where people don’t know they have influence, so that they can make you look terrible, cause lots of problems, without even them personally coming into the picture. And there are legitimate reasons for having a relationship with somebody like John D’Arco or Ed Vrdolyak or any of those people, not because you like them but because they are political realities.
“There’s an old story about the difference between a good girl and a bad girl. A good girl lets them and a bad girl helps them. I think there is such a thing as a decent and honorable and honest relationship you can have with an elected official as yourself also with an elected official without giving the store away. There’s a fine line you can walk. You don’t have to like them or subscribe to their principles or deal with them in a businesslike way. There’s a certain line you can’t cross, that’s all. She crossed the line.”
Rose: “She was unprepared to govern. She had no base. She had very few people she trusted, and that was a shifting group. and she was literally overwhelmed. One of the problems that she got into right away, coming from no base at all, in contradistinction to, say, Harold Washington, and coming from nowhere near his background, and having no interest in scholarship and research—her eyes glaze over after the first three minutes on a subject—suddenly she’s in this morass. And I think the reason she fell in with a bad crowd right away was that these were the first people that came to help her, and she needed help desperately.
“I think Jay is the reason Charlie Swibel took over. They were friends, close. Jay in his own way liked playing with a fast crowd. He’s kind of a professional rogue. I like him dearly, but he is a rogue. And as a rogue, he likes other rogues, many of whom are far more malignant than he is. And I think he sort of became her conduit to corruption rather than a corrupting influence himself.”
I wondered, then, if Rose wished he had joined Byrne’s administration and acted as a moral counterweight—which is what McGrath decided to do.
“I think back and forth,” Rose said. “I had pretty much decided I did not want to do it. In part, I think I knew it would be a government that I could not support, and I never wanted to put myself in a situation where I’d tend to be an apologist. I remember, Paul McGrath and I had a couple of radio confrontations, and he was put in a position of having to defend Charlie Swibel. And it was just appalling. He thinks just as little of Charlie Swibel as I do, and yet there he was, because that was his role.
“Could I have stopped the Swibels or stopped the D’Arcos? No. I think retrospectively no. I’ve asked myself at times could I have made that administration something other than it was, and I just feel that I could never have overcome Jay’s influence in that regard. I would have quickly found myself in a position of Paul or some of the others who either wound up out or out in left field. And at least I preserved 99-1/2 percent of my integrity … “
Karen Conner moved into City Hall as a director of special events and Paul McGrath became Byrne’s top aide, the deputy mayor. “Paul went through the Hall from the basement up,” Conner remembered. “He was looking for furniture. He found some City Hall employees down there who’d been there 30 years.
“The thing that astounded me,” Conner went on, “was I went to lunch at the Bismarck for the first time that week, and the hostess knew me. Those folks at the Bismarck are really sharp. They must have been studying photographs two weeks before the election, because my picture was in the papers only once. I couldn’t figure out how they knew who I was, but they knew me. All the policemen knew, too, the policemen who worked in City Hall. So they were pretty sharp, too.”
McGrath remembered wandering from office to office his first day, discovering where things were and who was running them. “The old-time City Hall employees were just scared to death,” McGrath said. “It was like a revolution. I noticed in the Tribune that Harold Washington’s favorite movie was Viva Zapata. Where the revolutionaries come into the palace with mud on their boots. This was like Viva Zapata.”
As it turned out, I said, the old employees had nothing to worry about.
“What happened in Viva Zapata is what happened to Jane Byrne,” McGrath replied. “We’ll see if it happens to Harold Washington.”
The City Hall office that McGrath found it was most intriguing to explore was the one on the sixth floor that belonged to patronage chief Tom Donovan. “It so happens I had interviewed Tom a couple of months previously, so I knew what the place looked like,” McGrath said. “For instance, there were long rows of file cabinets along the wall, and when we got in there, there were just depressions in the carpet where the file cabinets had been. A few file cabinets were still there, but they were completely empty. Most had been removed. They contained patronage records.
“And when I interviewed Tom Donovan I noticed he had a phone that looked like space command central. It had buttons all over the thing. It was a shiny black phone and he was operating it like an astronaut, direct lines to everybody. So after the election, when we went into the mayor’s office, what does Bilandic have on his desk but an old green telephone, and who are the buttons for but Ken Sain, Frank Sullivan, Erwin France—guys who left City Hall long, long ago. So that gives you an idea of who’s running things, right? Now, here’s the funny thing. After the election when we go into Tom Donovan’s office, that phone is gone. He’d gone to the trouble to have that phone removed, and also the similar extension in his conference room. Why, I don’t know.”
Karen Conner lasted more than two years in City Hall. She left with her authority pretty much drained away, under circumstances that remained publicly polite but were less than amiable. It’s not a subject she wants to talk about. McGrath was soon pushed aside by Bill Griffin as Byrne’s top assistant, and he resigned to become a political writer at Chicago magazine. But after a few months, Byrne brought him back. She made him a political consultant in an office on Wells Street, where he took polls and ran computers. It was good work, but after a while the mayor lost interest in him. Eventually he resigned. McGrath has had some four years. He’s been hired twice by Jane Byrne, cut loose twice, been married twice (the first time to Conner soon after the 1979 election), divorced once, and made a name for himself as a political journalist.
Conner: “I really thought that I knew a lot. I didn’t. That was the biggest shock to me. You can’t predict how people are going to behave when they get into certain situations. I thought there was something very special about everybody involved. Something unique—a democratic sort of honesty and willingness to do things for other people. Maybe that’s very naive and stupid on my part. But I felt that way. And then I saw shifts and changes … People would turn each other in. For what? A lousy $30,000 a year? The people I’m talking about basically were not making loads of money. They were basically collecting their salaries and had a position. I never expected to see anybody grow old in that building—let’s put it that way. Certainly not myself. But I saw people that were just willing to be invited into her office—if they were invited in, God! it made their week. There were not many individuals left after a very short period of time. The individuality diminished.
“Basically, they became transformed. I equated it to the invasion of the body snatchers. You had to look for pupils in people’s eyes to see if they had pupils. There were individuals in that building whose only existence is to go from office to office to see what’s going on in those offices, and then go downstairs and report. To see what notes are on your desk, to see what phone numbers you’ve got on your automatic dialer. To see what’s going on and then go down and exchange information. And that’s how people exist, just by finding things—what can I report?”
Was it different under Daley?
“I checked that out,” Conner said. “People have told me that under Daley there was a pyramid of responsibility and there was a great trust in department people and the administrative assistant. Responsibility was within those departments, so that it came down like a pyramid. It wasn’t that way under this one.”
Rose: “Once she’d told me—I’d done something beneficial, and she said your desk is going to be right in the office. We sort of laughed. I had never had any other discussion with her about whether I wanted a job.
“After the primary Mike Flannery called me from the Sun-Times and said am I going to take Tom Donovan’s job? And I said, no, I don’t intend to take a job in the administration. I had been a reformer trying to run the Tom Donovans out of government, not replace them with myself. All I really wanted was some policy access. I thought I could retain some influence, come up and recommend this or recommend that. That’s something I had never told Byrne.
“That’s also where came the famous line about the butcher shop. I said kind of offhandedly, ‘It might be entertaining to be in the butcher shop for a couple of weeks, but I don’t even really want to do that.’ And the butcher shop quote broke her out on a cold sweat. She refused to discuss it but I know she was unhappy. She let that feeling be known. She never dressed me down but there was a chill.”
And so the job that Rose had decided he wouldn’t take never actually got offered to him.
Jacobs: “In some ways, you’ve got to give some credit to Paul and to Karen and to the people who went into the administration. I think Paul thought he had just won an opportunity to run the city of Chicago well. And I think he went in and tried to do it. I wouldn’t say that Karen Conner or Paul McGrath or Bill Griffin or anybody were babes in the woods when they went in there. But they had an idea. You want to do something with the victory. You want to run the government.”
Did you want in?
“My role was so far away from the campaign,” Jacobs said. “I was the guy who sat here and watched television. So afterwards I didn’t know. I came back and I formulated this memo that was probably three pages of telecommunications policy. Here’s 560 things that ought to be done right away that would be good public relations. Fire Charlie Swibel. Get moving on cable television. Do this, do that. I think everybody probably went home after that election and made lists of things that they’d like to do in city government.
“After the administration was in, the person that I talked to was Karen, special events. And we did some things that are very nice. Nice little pieces, ways of using television to cover the city neighborhood festivals. The last thing I did for the city was the Skippy the Snowball campaign. And at that point, after a year, it was being handled through Griffin. Paul was already out. Karen didn’t know where she was.
“If somebody had come to see me and said ‘We want you to run something,’ I would have done it. I needed a job just like everybody else. The only thing I got out of it was—I knew a lot of people in the administration. I’d go down to the Hall and walk around. I could stop in Karen’s office. I could go to the press office … . You’d hear the stories, and you’d have a sense of who the people were.”
McGrath: “It was very soon after the election. We had a meeting to discuss a new condominium ordinance, which was one of her campaign pledges. We had this big discussion in her office that lasted for a long time, and I argued for a real strong condominium ordinance, and so did some other people, and we didn’t win. And so I saw then that something was going on. Somebody had gotten to her.
“Also at that time, I was arguing very strongly for reorganizing the City Council. And she kept Vrdolyak in all of his positions, and some of the others. Nothing happened on that. And there were other kinds of indications. But to me the turning point was the condo ordinance.”
I wondered if McGrath felt damaged by his friendship with Jane Byrne.
“I could think of several ways,” he said. “The way that I feel most intensely is that I was the guy who was fighting the moral fight every step of the way, who did not get in any financial deals. I could have been made a multimillionaire by now, because there was nothing that I could have asked for that I wouldn’t have gotten. I never for a moment thought of doing it. And I think I was portrayed by a lot of people in the press as just a jerk. For not being able to survive in City Hall. I can survive in City Hall. All I had to do was put my arms around those creeps—it wouldn’t be any problem. And that hurts me the most.”
But what did McGrath’s reputation the worst damage was that he got out of Byrne’s government and then went back for more.
“Had I known how it was going to turn out, I wouldn’t have done it,” McGrath said. “But again, I learned from it. I’d be better off today if I hadn’t. I’d still be working at Chicago magazine, for one thing. But I don’t think it was a mistake.
“See, what happened was that I saw what I thought was an opportunity. Jane has the kind of personality where when she’s riding high she goes with the big-money boys. And when she’s not, she becomes humble and you can talk to her. At the time I went back, she was at an absolute low point. It was after the 1980 elections and Daley was riding high—she was very low in the polls. I saw an opportunity to counterbalance Jay and Vrdolyak and John D’Arco and Swibel and all those people.”
All by yourself!
“No, no! That’s not grandiose at all,” McGrath insisted. “I accomplished things. If all the decent people say away, then there’ll be no one there but John D’Arco and Swibel and all those people, and that’s been the history of City Hall. I had no illusions that they were going to be sent packing out of town or anything like that, but there were things that were accomplished. One of them was the gun control ordinance. It was a definite fight at that time, with Swibel and Jay on the other side of it. And I won. There were other things. The war is never over, but you can win some battles. I tried to be a conscience whenever I had the chance. That’s why they didn’t like me.”
Jacobs: “The first six months, I was playing around in there [City Hall]. It was real nice stuff and I had lots of fun. If you’re looking for a turning point, it became clear when she appointed Jay press secretary—that was the signal that it was over. There was just no reason for it. It was politically not smart. It was personally not smart. It was a signal that there was not a guiding intelligence behind the administration. But it also was in character with what you see there. She’s very loyal to her friends.”
Conner: “The difficult thing about being involved in government in this city is that once you become involved, it’s hard to shake off. You can only talk to certain people that understand … . It’s sort of like getting a monkey off your back. The involvement is contagious—keeping an eye on what’s going on and what is in the press; what’s between the lines; what’s really true. It’s a fascinating hobby. It consumes me too much. I have to get up in the morning and say, ‘Don’t get excited when you read the papers!’
“It’s a hard thing to walk away from. It’s a hard thing to take the knowledge that you have and turn your back on it and say, ‘Well, it just doesn’t matter. I’m going on with my life.'”
It’s knowledge, I suggested, that has hardly any applications outside politics.
“No,” Conner agreed. “Except you know. You know all this. You know who planted this item. You know what the real story is.”
But after a point, I asked, don’t you stop knowing?
“You keep in touch,” she said. “So you do know. You always know. People keep in touch, so you have this continual kind of thing. And it makes me want to go to some small town and open a restaurant and get away from it.”
And what about Jane Byrne today?
“She’s a ruin,” McGrath said. “Four years ago she was a heroic figure, but poor. Today, she may be almost as poor, she may be poorer, she may be in debt—I don’t know. But today, she’s a ruin. She’s like those big paintings in the Art Institute of the ruined columns with the tigers and lions walking through. She was a heroic figure four years ago but very poor. Today—she may be rich and she may be poor, but morally, she’s completely bankrupt.”
Rose: “In many ways, I still like her. I’d still go and have a drink with her. She has a certain pixyish quality which on a personal level you can find very attractive and pleasant. Maybe not for a daily diet, but she was certainly someone you could enjoy. As I said, that pixy quality magnified to the public personality is what gets her into so much trouble.”
Jacobs: “She’s a very likable person, I think. You can’t forget that 412,000 people liked her quite a bit, when she was elected. And they did it all based on liking her. There was no precinct organization, there was her.
“A good perspective is to never forget she was the first person to ever beat the machine. This time around, it didn’t shock anybody. That time around, the idea of beating the machine!—it was just outrageous. It wasn’t even conceivable. And it happened because she galvanized people.”
Rose: “Yes, I think [her administration] was corrupt, morally bankrupt. There’s never been a financial scandal, but what is the difference between some of the kinds of fund raising that a Swibel engages in and that other agents of hers engaged in and extortion? It’s a very, very fine line. And who knows? In another year or two or three it would not be astonishing to find that line had been transgressed.”
McGrath: “Even the cab companies that she fought against, she embraced in her administration. Nothing could be more symbolic. It’s almost too perfect for a novel, that her administration comes to a close with her chief aide [Griffin] being accused of having a part in forcing cab companies to sell the Continental Air Transport. And who wrote the cab stories—Griffin?
“Another of the things that we campaigned on were consulting contracts and the Ken Sain reports. Well, here again, you have Griffin exposing the original Ken Sain report [in the Tribune], and subsequently becoming Ken Sain. Sitting next to him on the RTA board and himself getting consulting contracts. And the total expenditures for consulting contracts going from $6 million in the beginning of her administration to $40 million at the end. So anywhere you look.”
Jacobs: “We’d be doing these things [in the campaign] and Jane Byrne would walk up and say, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m yours. I’ll do anything that you tell me, Don.’ There are not a lot of people who just come to you that way. And so we had great opportunities. I believe that Don Rose manufactured the Jane Byrne that won. Now, there was a lot of Jane Byrne in that, and part of building a good candidate is to build to the strengths of the candidate. We saw it at a time when we were looking for her strength. If we had had Harold Washington four years later, we would have taken those same qualities that Jane Byrne has and looked for those weaknesses in her. Yes, she was a fighter; and yes, she was gutsy; and yes, she was strong-headed. And those things were an advantage while she was running. Four years later they were a disadvantage.”
Rose: “Jane Byrne is probably right now on her way to being one of the best-known nobodies in the world and I don’t think she has anyplace to go, I think she will find that all of those people with whom she made deals now she cannot produce anything for them, will have absolutely no need for her. I know that she is a person that’s disliked and disrespected by the elements in the party and in her government that were close to her, with some exceptions.
“As I say, I may maintain this kind of personal affection. And I think a lot of people who have come in contact with her genuinely like her while at the same time they have had a lot of reservations, questions, and antagonism to what she actually does. But she’s not without admirers. But the people who count, the people who did stuff for her, the people for whom she did stuff, most of them don’t like her.”