What the Hedgehog Knows | Media | Chicago Reader

What the Hedgehog Knows 

George Ryan's legacy is complicated. John Kass and the dailies' editorial boards prefer to keep it simple.

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If Mike Royko was a fox, John Kass is a hedgehog. Royko had a way of looking at the world, and no matter what his eye fell on he entertained us with his take on it. Kass is different.

The distinction between the fox and the hedgehog comes to us from Isaiah Berlin, who retrieved a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin, one of last century's preeminent political philosophers, thought about this, wrote an essay, and made a list. Shakespeare was a fox, of course, and so was Aristotle. But Proust and Plato were hedgehogs.

We mere mortals might suppose that journalists are a breed of fox, the human race's all-curious generalists. But they often don't write that way. When newspapers pronounce they tend to squint the way hedgehogs do, as if in fear of their own peripheral vision.

Kass knows that corruption runs wide and deep in Illinois, embracing both parties and the mob. When he dissects that corruption he's unsurpassed. But matters that don't comfortably exist in the context of the corruption he tends not to see at all.

A couple weeks ago a panel of federal appellate judges upheld George Ryan's conviction on corruption charges but stayed his prison sentence while the entire Seventh Circuit decided whether to hear his appeal. The hell with him, responded Chicago's newspapers. In the August 23 editorial "Start Ex-Gov's prison term now," the Sun-Times said, "Those feeling sorry for Ryan need to shift their sympathies to Scott and Janet Willis who lost six children in a fiery 1994 crash caused by a trucker tied to the licenses-for-bribes scandal under Ryan's watch as secretary of state. But prison really isn't the harshest punishment for Ryan. He has already tarnished his self-imposed legacy as the governor who stopped state executions and subsequently was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize--an act, some believe, orchestrated to keep him from being charged."

This was not only blunt and harsh, it was tortured. The Sun-Times can't possibly believe that the "tarnish" on Ryan's "self-imposed" legacy is a harsher fate than prison. And "self-imposed" made it sound as if he created a legacy by dictate, like a Caesar declaring himself a god, when he in fact created it by calling capital punishment in Illinois corrupt and unjust and freeing innocent men from prison. This happened years after Ryan's scandalous reign as secretary of state, and whatever he did then, it doesn't tarnish what he did later. If the Sun-Times thinks Ryan belongs in prison, so be it. But he deserves to be looked at squarely and fully by any paper condemning him. Instead, the Sun-Times gave him a one-eyed squint.

It did, at least, give Rich Miller, publisher of the newsletter Capitol Fax, space the next day for an op-ed putting in a good word for Ryan. "He was a builder, who had big dreams and knew how to get things done," Miller wrote, allowing that although he couldn't "really defend someone who so obviously and repeatedly broke the law" he didn't intend to "gloat about it."

The Tribune refused to cut Ryan any slack at all. "George Ryan, still guilty," its August 22 editorial damning the ex-governor, went on about his "hubris" and complained that "to this day, Ryan hasn't fully acknowledged his misdeeds. . . . He's offered no more than a perfunctory apology." The Tribune, which has published long, distinguished series on criminal justice in Illinois and won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials demanding reform, didn't so much as nod at Ryan's good deeds. The same editorial page once exclaimed that "the movement to change the justice system has had many supporters but it has largely been sustained by one person, Gov. George Ryan." But that was five years ago. This time around, corruption was all there was to Ryan that was worth talking about.

The obits will be more evenhanded. If you can trademark the term "mixed legacy," you'll make a fortune when Ryan dies.

Kass wrote a column about the staying of Ryan's sentence. He saw what he always sees. Venality. Cronyism. Ryan getting a deal. Kass managed to salt his column with his usual suspects whether they had anything to do with Ryan's case or not--Victor Reyes, Timothy Degnan, the already convicted City Hall patronage boss Robert Sorich. Over yonder the mayor. And above and beyond, the attorney who defended Ryan and didn't charge him a dime, former governor Jim Thompson, "the man who gave birth, in immaculate fashion, to the Illinois combine that runs things."

And Kass saw the Willis children:

"Ben was 13. Joe was 11. Sam was 9. Hank was 7. Elizabeth was 3. Peter was 6 weeks old. They weren't politicians. They had no clout. They didn't belong to the combine. What kind of deal did they get?"

They didn't get any. Neither did Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange, Aaron Patterson, and Stanley Howard--at least not until Ryan decided they were innocent of the crimes for which they'd been sentenced to death and pardoned them in 2003. Jon Burge commanded the police unit that extracted the confessions that sent those men to death row. Burge was a torturer by the city's own admission, and the city eventually fired him. According to the Tribune's online archives, Kass, in the decade he's been writing his column, has mentioned Burge once. That happened last summer, when special prosecutors Edward Egan and Robert Boyle issued a report on police torture that Kass believed let Daley off the hook--which it did. Daley had been state's attorney in the 80s when Burge's earliest known victims began speaking up.

What concerned Kass wasn't the torture. It was the deal Daley got. It was the "Regular Democratic Organization roots" of Egan and Boyle, who understood "a white paper was required, to put a political lid on things" and duly delivered a white paper, "along with some whitewash." It's not that Kass was wrong about what went down. It's that the "mopes"--that's what Royko would have called them--who let themselves get arrested and tortured by Chicago's finest have never been in his line of sight.

In recent days Kass has written incessantly of the "Family Secrets" trial, which he's called the "whole ballgame in Chicago," the event that "reveals the infrastructure of a great metropolis, illuminating part of the iron triangle that runs things, with the Outfit at the base of the triangle." For three days running he mused on defendant Tony Doyle, a bad cop caught on tape talking to defendant Frank Calabrese about "giving electric shocks" to Frank's faithless brother Nick. "There was talk of many volts and a cattle prod inserted just so."

If the subject of bad cops giving electric shocks interested Kass that much, he could have been writing about it for years. He could have talked to Leroy Orange about what it feels like. Here's what Orange might have told him: it hurts so bad you'll confess to a quadruple murder you didn't commit to make it stop.

A Saint for the Rest of Us?

In 1988 a newspaperwoman from Chicago paid a call on Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Miracle of miracles, the story ran exactly as the wife of the publisher of the Sun-Times wrote it. In this account, Mother Teresa and God were the kind of old pals who have known each other since preschool. "Hello God. It's me, Teresa," said Mother Teresa. And God replied, "How are you this morning?" Mother Teresa said she was fine and God told her not to work so hard. The woman from Chicago had a photographer in tow whom Mother Teresa wasn't sure she should allow onto the premises, but God reasoned with her. "She's come a long way and it means a lot to her," He said.

The writer allowed that she'd had to "imagine" this conversation, and now we know that it might not have been imagined all that accurately. According to the letters she left behind, God said nothing to Mother Teresa for something like 50 years, throwing her into a profound despair she endured but never threw off. In his syndicated column, Andrew Greeley said she'd simply experienced the Dark Night of the Soul, and he was indignant that secular journalists weren't as familiar with the concept as he was. How, he wondered, "do you explain to a religiously illiterate secularist reporter about the Dark Night?"

Greeley's complaint was that the media dealt with the publication of the letters as if they launched a "scandal"--the scandal of hypocrisy. You can find whatever you want to find in today's bountiful media, but I didn't notice much scandalmongering. If Catholics like Greeley want to argue that 50 years is but a night and that 50 years of estrangement from God is the ultimate proof of sainthood, they're welcome to try. Greeley wrote that he himself doubts 20 times before breakfast--which for some reason reminded me of what Mark Twain said about how easy it was for him to give up smoking.

Mother Teresa's doubt was of a different order, and you don't have to be a good Catholic to understand how empty the only universe we've got can seem when God doesn't speak. Diana was the people's princess, unmediated by Buckingham Palace. Mother Teresa could become the saint of godless people, unmediated by any church.

For more see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

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