Paul McGrath, RIP | Bleader

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Paul McGrath, RIP

Posted By on 07.24.12 at 08:07 AM

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Paul McGrath
  • Paul McGrath
In the early 1970s Paul McGrath worked the Sun-Times late shift, when the stories that sent us into the night were either horrible police and fire calamities or big shots making speeches no one remembered 20 minutes later. As I recalled in a 1981 Reader story on McGrath, he had "the right sort of ironic wit for those graveyard hours."

And for much else his life dished out. Anyone inclined to laugh at life's absurdities will find plenty of opportunities, but McGrath's life was uniquely rich with material. We should all regret that McGrath, who died last week at the age of 75, did not write a memoir—if only to let us relive the years 1978 through '83 as he experienced them. In '78, during a staff contraction caused by the folding of the sister paper, the Daily News, McGrath was dumped as a Sun-Times reporter. But he knew Jane Byrne a little—he'd done some stories about taxicab medallions when Byrne was commissioner of consumer affairs—and when she launched her totally quixotic race for mayor later that year, he pitched in. And it came to pass that a year after the Sun-Times gave him the boot he was Chicago's deputy mayor. But the clock keeps ticking, and a few months later he was out of City Hall writing a political/media column for Chicago magazine.

"I knew pretty soon," McGrath said to me about City Hall, "there was going to be a lot of knifing. And I made up my mind that when that started, I go."

How quickly did you think the knifing would start? I asked.

"I didn't think it would be as fast as it was," McGrath allowed.

My own view, I wrote then, was that McGrath, whom I'd worked with for eight years at the Sun-Times, had the wrong temperament to be Byrne's Number Two. (He wasn't a schemer; he wasn't a hater.) But, I went on, his column inChicago was terrific: "There was that jolt of revelation that accompanies a fundamental revaluation of someone else's abilities."

"Best job I ever had," said McGrath.

But the column put him in an interesting position, and I asked him to sort it out. "Do you think it might have been more difficult for some people to read you in Chicago magazine," I asked, "because they knew that, on the one hand, you seemed to have had a falling out with the mayor you were now writing about, but on the other hand your wife was working for her?"

For McGrath's wife, Karen Conner, remained Byrne's director of special events.

"You're right," said McGrath. "There was a difficult line to walk."

But it was academic now! McGrath and I were talking because he'd left Chicago and gone back to work for Byrne, this time as a political consultant. In his interview he stoutly defended Byrne and lambasted the press along lines that I didn't disagree with—"Newspapers are fond of talking about their ethics," he said. "They're phony ethics. They're pro forma ethics. You can't take a bottle of booze at Christmas. That's supposed to be ethics. . . . True ethics is not harming people unless it's absolutely necessary. Newspapers do it to entertain people and to sell papers."

(I'm sorry this long-ago story was never digitized.)

But McGrath's second time around with Byrne didn't last long either; and for that matter, neither did the marriage with Conner. By the time Byrne was voted out of office in 1983 both were over and McGrath had even remarried. I interviewed him again as Byrne moved out of City Hall and Harold Washington moved in, and by then he'd made up his mind about his two-time boss. "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," said McGrath. "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."

When McGrath died, Byrne, quoted in the Sun-Times, remembered him as a "straight shooter," as "honest and smart." I have no idea whether Byrne had forgotten what McGrath once said about her, chose not to remember, or never took it seriously. If anyone ever taught her a good rule of thumb in politics is to ignore 90 percent of the compliments and 95 percent of the insults, it was probably McGrath.

After Byrne, he taught journalism at Medill and Columbia College, and returned to his first love, photography, shooting courthouse pictures for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. He had two daughters, Kelly and Molly. Kelly McGrath, the older, is director of communications at the Newberry Library, and when I asked her in an e-mail if he'd ever talked about a memoir, she wrote back, "You know him better than that. Not in a million years would he think anyone would want to read his memoirs. He never, ever mentioned it." He didn't say much about the Byrne years either, and Kelly doesn't know if his feelings about her ever softened. "My father embraced the future," Kelly went on. He was "intensely interested in, and concerned about, the future of journalism, and kept coming up with ideas he thought might both embrace new technology but maintain credible sources of news."

Her dad did, however, make up with Bill Granger. Her telling me this came as great news, because I was on the Sun-Times night crew with both of them, and their garrulous friendship was the chief joy of working the shift. "10-4 to the Boul Mich," McGrath would announce when the work was done, and off they'd go. Granger was booted when McGrath was booted, and Granger's response to the Coventry the paper had plunged them in was to write books and more books. One of the first was 1980's Fighting Jane: Mayor Jane Byrne and the Chicago Machine, written with Granger's wife Lori but without assistance from Fighting Jane's deputy mayor that Granger might have taken for granted. And nothing much rolled off Granger's back.

Granger suffered a stroke in 2002 that cost him his short-term memory, and he died last April. But Kelly told me they'd patched things up. "My father was most deeply affected by his passing," she e-mailed me. "It continued to bring him to tears, something I saw only once before—when his mother died."

Where I saw McGrath most often in recent years was on Facebook. He was a resident pundit. He had thoughts and he posted them. They were always interesting. "The Republican cranks have done President Obama a great favor by naming the historic achievement Obamacare," he commented on July 1. "It will always bear his name. Even Roosevelt couldn't do that."

A few days later an aortic aneurysm sent him to the hospital. His death on July 18, Kelly says, was "entirely unexpected."

Journalists can argue forever whether McGrath crossed the street into politics once, or even twice, too often. It didn't bother me except that the second time reminded me too much of Charlie Brown telling himself that this time Lucy won't yank the football away before he kicks it. "I did a hell of a job [as deputy mayor]," McGrath told me. "I thought my contribution was bringing the sensibility of a Sun-Times editorial writer [his last assignment there] to the fifth floor of City Hall."

The problem is, an editorial writer needs to be content with imploring rather than driving change. "It's the difference between the world of action and the world of contemplation," said McGrath, who chose to be a man of action. I don't know what lessons his choices taught him, but they certainly made him interesting. One time in the early 80s we happened to meet near the corner of State and Illinois, a time when Chicago north of the river was still kind of a low, scuzzy frontier. McGrath waved a hand. One day, he said, looking north up State, that will all be high rises. And today it is. McGrath knew; in City Hall he'd seen the plans. He liked knowing, and don't we all.

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