The Abominable Snow Job | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

The Abominable Snow Job 

and Other Political Atrocities of 1989

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Jack Higgins, the Sun-Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, crystallized this year's greatest political atrocity last August in a cartoon depicting a TV crew, photographers, and reporters looking toward the horizon while our mayor stands grinning before them. One of the reporters says:

"Another glorious summer day. Thank you Rich Daley."

Which sums up perfectly the unabashed, adulatory, promotional posture the journalistic pack demonstrated toward Richie the candidate and later Richie da mare.

Thus, for the first time in the history of the Janie Awards, we give a collective Janie for Rancid Reform to the Chicago media corps. (The award is named, of course, for a former mayor--one I inflicted upon you a decade ago--who became emblematic of local political atrocities.)

The media receive the award collectively because their coverage of both the campaign and the Ascension was uniformly atrocious--but there were some notable individual atrocities that could be cited, such as:

Channel Two's John Davis devoting nearly four minutes of a weekend newscast to a Daley parade and interviewing a senior lady about why she loved Richie so much--thereby giving the front-runner a bonus commercial while the other candidates each got less than 30 seconds of ordinary coverage that evening.

Channel Five issuing a last-minute poll showing Daley with a 30-point lead (impossible, of course). Oh, they noted later, it was an "unweighted" poll, meaning the black vote was dramatically underrepresented in the sample.

Then there was Hugh Hill's avuncularly loving coverage nightly on Channel Seven.

And a series of error-laden editorials in the Tribune and a remarkable one praising, rather than damning, Daley for refusing to debate his general-election opponents.

And how about the Sun-Times trying to knock down a Tribune story showing that Daley's office was covering up an investigation of fraud and forgery in the 1986 petition campaign? A special prosecutor later obtained indictments against several people in Daley's state's attorney's office, prompting all the media to lead with the notion that Daley wasn't personally involved. At least no more than Nixon in Watergate, guys.

After the Ascension, business as usual returned to City Hall:

Whites swiftly replaced blacks, becoming new hires in major jobs at a three-to-one rate. Small stories, no comment from the media.

A brother-in-law of Richie's brother Bill got a highly paid, cushy job created for him in the administration during a time of financial cutback. Again, small stories, little comment.

A highly skilled, widely experienced housing professional was fired from the city housing department to be replaced by the husband of Daley's press secretary--whose only housing experience was living in one. Comments? Comments?

Imagine the way Washington or Byrne would have been lambasted for similar actions in their administrations.

The press honeymoon may become a permanent conjugal relationship.

So much for the top prize. Now let's reward some other deserving atrocities:

The MVP Award for Switch-Hitting to Attorney General Neil Hartigan, a gubernatorial aspirant and once a staunch foe of abortion. Some years ago he initiated, on his own, an appeal to the Supreme Court of the Ragsdale decision, in which lower courts had found unconstitutional an Illinois statute regulating abortion clinics. The appeal could have ended almost all abortions nationally.

But this year the winds changed and Hartigan became "prochoice." Sensing that he would be politically destroyed by prosecuting the case before the Supremes, he began negotiating with the American Civil Liberties Union to settle the case out of court. As the date grew closer, he finally threw in the towel, surrendering unconditionally and hoping to salvage some votes out of the debacle that he had created in the first place. This reversal was almost as audacious as Hartigan's famous seat-belt switch, in which he first endorsed seat-belt laws and then opposed them when polls showed them to be unpopular with voters.

ACLU lawyers and staffers were left reeling by Hartigan's profound ignorance of the Ragsdale issues and facts, confirming again a comment I made in these pages many years ago: Hartigan is so light he floats like a fart in a bathtub.

The Harold Stassen Chutzpah Award, named for a once youthful officeholder who became a perennial candidate, to Alderman Edwin Eisendrath of the 43rd Ward, known to the Tribune as the "Boy Alderman" and the Sun-Times as "Little Lord Eddie."

Two and a half years ago the rich little rich kid bought a City Council seat for a quarter of a million bucks. Now the Council's first certifiable yuppie alderman wants to pay a full million for the congressional seat of Sidney Yates.

He notes, of course, that he doesn't disagree with most of Yates's votes, but suggests none too subtly that Yates may die before the census of 2000.

Eisendrath, a staunch Nixon supporter during his school years, accused his aldermanic opponent of wanting to use the City Council as a stepping-stone to Congress. Quoth he: "I want to live here. I don't want to live in Washington."

Of being an alderman he said, "When it's not fun anymore I'll stop."

But now he boasts that he has fulfilled his aldermanic agenda. Now, he says, his goal is to cut down on the number of congressional committees. Just like he cut down on the number of City Council committees?

Criticized for not attending his own Council committee meetings, he said he can find out what went on with a simple phone call because he is now "closer to the administration."

"Anybody who's been at those meetings will tell you they haven't been too good this year," he said.

Well, he did say he'd quit when it's not fun anymore. How long do you imagine Congress will remain fun before he decides to run for president? Stassen ran six times.

The Mouth That Bored Award to Alderman Dorothy Tillman, who said Eugene Sawyer had turned City Hall into Uncle Tom's cabin. When criticized, she held a news conference to repeat her condemnation of Uncle Tom Sawyer. Then another. Then another. Then another. Then she wound up getting the city's lowest vote turnout in her ward.

The Uncle Tom Sawyer Award to Melvin Reynolds, who is among those challenging Gus "the Octopus" Savage for his seat in Congress. Reynolds confidently predicted he would have the support of all the committeemen in this biracial district, but only got the votes of the whites--plus that of 34th Ward Committeeman Wilson Frost, who frequently strives to be.

The Mercedes Benz Award to Congressman Dan Rostenkowski for the cleverest hood ornament in all automotivedom: a senior citizen sprawled there as he drove through a flock of elderly folk protesting a health-care law. The Tribune's "Inc." wondered whether he was merely driving up business for the soon-to-be-opened Dan Rostenkowski Outpatient Surgery Center.

The Jonestown Mass Suicide Award to the Democratic slate makers who cobbled together a county ticket with all the winning potential of your basic GOP ticket of yesteryear. The political Kool-Aid was passed around by outgoing County Board Chairman George Dunne, who apparently wanted to take a few associates along with him.

The Dueling Accordions Award to state senator Ted Lechowicz and county clerk Stanley Kusper, who are Poles apart in the four-way race for County Board president. Each claims the support of more Polish civic organizations than there are Polish citizens in Cook County--which is a lot. And while Stanley and Ted play Pole-ier Than Thou, Judge Eugene "Lynch 'em" Pincham is trying to woo liberals who have been agonizing over Winnetka attorney Richard Phelan's ties to the Daleys and his recently resigned membership in the Bob O'Link country club, which excludes women, blacks, Jews, and other undesirables. With a field like this, anyone living west of Lake Michigan should get hung up about casting a ballot for anyone.

The Oscar Wilde Award to Chicago magazine for demonstrating that former alderman Bill Singer, vice president of the Board of Education, is really a walking picture of Dorian Gray. The December issue, describing his "make-over," juxtaposes a photo of the youthful, Beatle-banged Billy as a reformer with a current portrait showing him at his most sinister, complete with slicked-back Gordon Gekko hairdo. But his picture in the attic remains unchanged.

The Doctor's Dilemma Award to Herbert Sohn, who probably drove his mother into ecstasy by becoming both a doctor and a lawyer--then a Republican candidate for mayor of Chicago, the first to run from a residence in the suburbs. He then made more history by becoming the first slated Chicago mayoral candidate ever to lose a primary to a write-in candidate.

The Mid-Life Crisis Award to former alderman Edward Vrdolyak, who kept running and losing for office after office--including a race in which he got the fewest Republican votes in history for mayor of Chicago. Now he's turned radio talk- show host and lent his name to a restaurant. Just like Lester Maddox.

The Richard J. Daley Ruptured Rhetoric Award, a legacy. The son also rises to high platitudes of achievement in untoward utterings, meandering mouthings, and grammatical grotesqueries. Among them:

--referring to black actor James Earl Jones as "James Earl Ray," the murderer of Martin Luther King;

--asserting "There aren't any racial issues in this campaign; there aren't any personalities in this campaign";

--declaring "I was the first one to cry wolf" on the drug issue;

--observing, "This is the 1990s. We can't close our eyes or run into the closet."

But Daley's campaign opponents gave him a run for his money. Acting mayor Eugene Sawyer noted with atypical astuteness, "There is no decisiveness on my part." On another occasion he pledged to become a "drum major for education."

Then Alderman Tim Evans justified naming his new party after Mayor Washington by averring: "I took the position that if an elephant can symbolize the Republicans, if a jackass can symbolize the Democrats, then certainly what Harold Washington stood for could symbolize a party."

But Richie's languid linguistics peaked late in the campaign when he told a group of southwest-siders: "You want a white mayor." Then his backers said we heard it all wrong, he really said "You want a what mayor," citing his problems with articulation. Then Clarence Page, the columnist, suggested he said "You want a wet mayor."

This last hypothesis was supported later by a water-suffused news conference at which Daley complained about the CHA's water bills, and proposed for the tenants: "How about giving them a meter--one shower a day or something. Give me one dollar a week from everyone. That adds up . . . $48 a year."

Thus proving that Richie can do for arithmetic what he has already done to English.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jack Higgins.

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