Why Is This Man Hiding?

Robert Page’s palace guard, two minions who had served him intimately for years, have just resigned from the Sun-Times, apparently under fire, and employees wonder if the publisher’s own position is in danger.

It is difficult to imagine Page dismissing Joan Kane and Tom Cunningham if there were any way for him not to. Kane was his executive assistant: she went where he went, guarded his home phone number, and issued orders in his name. Cunningham was Page’s aide, assistant, batman, coat holder–the dignity of the position varies with the warmth of the person describing it. But at the end his formal title was senior vice president/corporate development.

Both Kane and Cunningham had been with Page in Boston when he was Rupert Murdoch’s publisher of the Herald. When Murdoch moved Page here in 1983 they followed, and when Page bought the paper in 1986 they stayed.

What happened? That is not clear, because the principals all refuse to talk about it. But from various sources whose knowledge we admit is secondhand, we gather that Page was persuaded that Kane and Cunningham had become an expense too great to justify. It might be that members of the board of the Chicago Sun-Times, Inc., made this clear to Page directly–various members, in particular chairman Leonard Shaykin, a New York investment banker, had been observed around the paper in recent weeks. It might be that other executives told Page they would go to the board if he didn’t act.

Cunningham presumably drew a six-figure income, and his principal executive duty–signing off on editorial expenses–logically could have been done by Page himself. We’re told that Donald Piazza, the newspaper’s chief operating officer, was particularly irritated that neither he nor general manager Chuck Price had any control of the editorial budget.

As anyone who speaks for the boss is bound to, Kane made enemies. Out in the city room, subalterns would wonder if some of what she said Bob Page wanted done was really her own wishes. And she gained a reputation for extravagance: “a lot of bread and circuses,” someone close to the operation said, and a little red car with a telephone in it that everyone assumed belonged to the company.

How much ill does this modest upheaval augur for the boss himself? Less, possibly, than reporters in the city room tend to think. The investors who loaned Page the money to buy the Sun-Times look first at the profit line, and we hear the news there is fairly good. In a leveraged buy out of this sort, the investors count on the company’s profits to provide them with their own, which makes a board of directors disinclined to do anything–such as boot out a publisher–that would signal a sinking ship.

On the other hand, there are plenty of aspects of the Page regime that could make a board of directors skittish. There is all the money Page has sunk into a project close to his heart, the development of a new Sunday magazine, even though Sunday magazines are failing everywhere (we heard this week, but couldn’t confirm, that the magazine had been killed). There are the fights the paper picked with the Newspaper Guild, by laying off copy clerks and librarians, that are going to arbitration and are likely to be lost. There are the first-rate journalists who have been fired or driven off for one reason or another: sports columnist Ron Rapoport, special projects editor Bernie Judge, one features editor, two financial editors. The editorial product is at best erratic, and at its least dignified, the Sun-Times embarrasses its employees–we even hear that Leonard Shaykin personally objected to the recent week-long parading of John Wayne Gacy’s pathetic “love letters.”

Piazza and Price are not Murdoch veterans. Piazza joined the Sun-Times when Marshall Field still owned the paper; he stayed on after Murdoch bought it because the opportunity came to take over operations. But he despised what the Sun-Times became under Murdoch and the paper is still too far from the mainstream to suit him. Like Page, he was one of the players who organized to buy out Murdoch, and he owns a percent or two of the company now. Price joined the Sun-Times from a top law firm in Cleveland.

If rumor and conjecture have indeed made more of Joan Kane and Tom Cunningham’s departure than the episode warranted, we have all been provoked by the dense curtain of silence that descended over the executive ranks. Divining much from little as spiritedly as any Kremlinologist, outsiders have found reason to imagine either (1) Page, Piazza, and Price in a fight to the finish for local control of the Sun-Times or (2) Page already the loser of that fight and remaining in place for a grace period appropriate to his rank.

Perhaps the possibility of legal action by either of Page’s departed loyalists made so much discretion seem a wise thing. Or Page might feel that nobody who’s calling is his friend anyway and he’ll be damned if he’ll oblige any of us. And maybe everyone just wants to keep the lid on for a few days more: they may be hoping to contain a tempest long enough to get through this weekend’s Gridiron Dinner in Washington, where Page is expected to preside at a big party for Sun-Times columnist Carl Rowan, who’s president of the Gridiron Club.

And, yes, we could be belaboring a teapot.

Trib Goes for Gore

Why Al Gore?

“If you look at all the candidates,” explained Jim Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune, “He’s the only one with a foreign policy and defense position we could live with.

“Gephardt might have fit that,” Squires went on, “but we had been so tough on Gephardt with protectionism that his people didn’t even want to bring him by to see us.”

That was the second reason we heard why the Tribune endorsed Senator Gore in Illinois’ Democratic primary. The first reason why was juicier: it was because Gore and Squires used to work on the same paper.

For about a year in 1971-72 Squires was city editor of the Nashville Tennessean and Gore was a young reporter. Then Squires quit to join the Tribune. “I’m not a close personal friend of Al Gore,” Squires told us. “I know his father quite well [Al Gore Sr., a former senator]. I know Jesse better than I know Al and I know Paul Simon probably better than I know Al. I have never been in a social situation with Al Gore in my life.”

Actually, if Gore had an advocate when the Tribune editorial board started debating whom to endorse, it was board member Stephen Chapman. The candidate Squires chose to try on for size was Jesse Jackson.

Not that Jackson fit. Squires said, “I would have preferred to endorse one of the Illinois guys but I don’t know how the hell the Tribune can do that. They don’t agree with us on what the problems are. Jesse agreed more than Simon. But his solutions involved a lot of things the Tribune can’t handle.”

Earlier this year, the Tribune ran a series of editorials setting out its notion of the national agenda. “The challenge of the Gorbachev era” led the list. Michael Dukakis looked interesting until Stephen Chapman went up to Iowa to track his statements on foreign policy. “He just said some remarkably stupid things,” Chapman told us. “He has a foreign policy but it’s very reflexive and ideological. It doesn’t seem to grow out of any wisdom.” For example, Dukakis maintained that the only obstacle to the Arias plan was the Reagan administration–“which is an idiotic thing to say,” according to Chapman.

Gore came in and spent 90 minutes with the Tribune’s editorial board and “did a hell of a job,” said Squires. None of the other Democratic candidates showed up.

They liked what Gore said about defense spending. “We said, ‘How are you going to handle defense expenditures?”‘ Squires told us. “And he said, ‘I’m going to try to get the NATO countries to pay to defend themselves. And Japan has to do the same.’ That’s a nice position. Clean.”

At the same time, Squires said, Gore believes in negotiating disarmament from strength. “He wants to put a lot of money in the Minuteman and he supported the MX. If there’s one good thing Reagan did it was to set the Russians up to make a deal.”

“Gore knows a lot about arms control,” Lois Wille told us. “He’s better informed than a lot of the candidates. What frustrated us is he said all this to us. If you look back on his speeches, he hasn’t learned to get these points across in the campaign. He has to learn how to squeeze them into 30-second sound bites.”

It’s interesting that Chapman, even though he strongly prefers Gore to the other Democrats, isn’t very excited by him.

“He’s obviously willing to support a fair amount of protectionism,” Chapman said. “And he apparently thinks the Arias plan is the road to Utopia in Central America. The Arias plan is a litmus test–if you’re a Democrat you have to say nice things about the Arias plan even though it says absolutely nothing about Soviet aid.”

Squires liked Gore on Central America. “He can tell the difference between a Marxist government and a Soviet-backed government. Basically he said he’d go right to the top–to Gorbachev. If they don’t have another supplier of arms you have a much better chance of dealing with them.”

But Chapman says it’s scarcely imaginable that the Reagan administration hasn’t already tried to do this.

“I’m not terribly impressed with the candidates in either party,” Chapman told us.

So what did Gore do? Right after the Tribune endorsed him, says Squires, he came out with a new commercial “proclaiming his new populist position on attacking the rich and the powerful.

“He didn’t say anything to us about that when he came in here. Basically, those guys who want to tear down the establishment in America to help the people who need helping are demagogues, and that’s hard to endorse.”

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