Friday, December 30, 2005

Now the Minor Seven with Perhaps Significant Consequences.

1. The death of John Paul II while profound was not as earth shattering death of John Paul II while profound was not earth-shaking as some Catholics professed (his death was, after all, expected: he was a charismatic Pope with a friendly demeanor; he stressed conservative social values. I am not sure he will be called John Paul The Great simply because it is too early to tell and I’ve frankly not been impressed by some of his ordained bishops. Perhaps a better biographer than George Weigel will tell us how these appointments occurred and in particular how Walter Cardinal Kasper happened, one who appeared to be diametrically opposed to the Pope’s social views. Weigel never got over his commission as the authorized biographer, is too cosmetically inclined to give us a better view. But tied with this was the election of Benedict XVI, like John Paul a first-rate philosopher and theologian who may well rein in the misguided “reformers” as he is likely to do with the seminaries.



(2) The issuance of 3,000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples by Oregon’s Multnomah county which serves notice that this issue will become even more important as the years roll on. (3) The signing of the $286.4 billion transportation bill by President Bush on top of a $333 billion projected deficit which must trigger a revolution of some sort within the GOP. (4) and this one will surprise you, the death of Johnny Carson who was the most finessed TV talk show host, following Jack Paar and Steve Allen. As the most accomplished purveyor of deft and even intellectual humor, Carson is supplanted by a genre of grunting, perspiring unfunny brutes: one I call The Jaw, Jay Leno and the other a nondescript non-judgmental inconsequential performer, Dave Letterman. The Carson vacancy should, I hope, provide a spotlight on where our culture is going, from deft satire to ugly, leering bromides. (5) the death of John Johnson, the first black billionaire and publisher, leading us to speculate where are the successors? (6) the salutary development of the filming of one of C. S. Lewis’s masterworks preceded by Tolkien’s. (7) The $1.6 billion kickbacks some companies paid to Saddam Hussein to obtain Iraqi oil which, I hope, will lead to more widespread deserved cynicism about the UN and either the administrative incompetence or worse of its general secretary who has romanced the mainstream media here, who evidently see him as an inheritor of our own civil rights tradition where in reality he is either an ultra-dexterous con man or a total scoundrel.

Minor 2005 Events Figure More Prominently Than We Suppose. But First the Major Seven

Now’s the time when everyone writes about the most significant yearly happenings. Mine are easy. The ten in order are: (1) the reelection of George Bush which gave impetus to a successful preemptive foreign policy that will govern our future; (2) progress on the Iraq war and its first multiparty elections in 81 years which could well be the key to winning against terrorism; (3) Ariel Sharon’s authorization of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements on the West Bank, culminated by his leaving the Likud party. (4) the terrorist attacks outside Iraq: Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt (88 killed); Amman, Jordan (59); London (56); New Delhi, India (55); Sulawesi, Indonesia (22); Beirut, Lebanon (21 including the former prime minister); Bali, Indonesia (20); Burma (11); Tel Aviv (5) and the Indonesia beheadings (3). Notice there have not been terrorist attacks in the U.S., due to Bush’s forthright application on restraints to our promiscuously wide-open civil liberties.

(5) The natural disasters, following the 2004 9.0 earthquake under the Indian Ocean which swept the coastlines of 13 nations, killing more than 200,000 which reverberated through 2005 and Katrina which produced a failure of sorts for the feds and spectacular ineptitude of response by Louisiana and New Orleans: political reverberations of which can trigger the national rise of Rudy Giuliani for 2008 where people may well decide to shelve ideology in favor of a superb crisis manager. (6) Changes in the Supreme Court with Chief Justice John Roberts and likely Sam Alito.

(7) The wrongful death of the brain-damaged Pinellas county, Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, following the award to her husband of $2 million to care for her the balance of her life, following which Michael Schiavo asked doctors to withhold antibiotics which they refused but which he later admitted might cause her to develop sepsis and die. The Congress passed the Incapacitated Persons Legal Protection Act [IPLPA] signed by a pajama-clad President Bush. At the end appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court denied the habeas corpus suit and the government stood by to watch her die, denying her water and even reception of the Eucharist. The repercussions are with us yet and will remain.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

It’s Topinka 24.7% and Oberweis 20.7% in Sharply Narrowing Poll!

Earlier I said that the race for the Republican governorship may very well boil down to Oberweis v. Topinka. A private poll commissioned by Jim Oberweis, but conducted with professional and scrupulous accuracy, confirms that this is indeed how the primary is looking. Oberweis is gaining steadily on Topinka but the race will indeed be one for the history books in that is shows a clear-cut demarcation between liberal and conservative views, particularly on social policy.

Attitudinal polling, measuring the intensity of feeling, show Topinka’s numbers “soft” with a leaning to her. The hard vote responses make the race extremely tight—24.7 percent for Topinka and 20.7 percent for Oberweis.

An advance look at the poll conducted by WVE Research in December shows Judy Baar Topinka in the lead, helped by “soft numbers,” with 30.2 and Oberweis at 22.7. As 24.8 percent are undecided, Ron Gidwitz and State Sen. Bill Brady combined do not match the strength of Oberweis. Oberweis’ strength is shown clearly in comparison with a Tribune/WGN poll which had Topinka at 31 percent and Oberweis at 15 percent with 7 percent each for Brady and State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, 5 percent for DuPage states attorney Joe Birkett and 4 percent for Gidwitz.

Polling in the suburban 8th congressional district (Melissa Bean) two leading Republican candidates report their polling show likely GOP voters tied between Oberweis and Topinka.

Thus the lines of cleavage appear to be sharper in this primary than any other Republican battle since 1964 when the gubernatorial primary pitted Chuck Percy against State Treasurer Bill Scott. Percy was adjudged to be the liberal in that race and Scott the conservative, although in those pre-Roe v. Wade days Goldwater-style issues as distinct from Rockefeller issues framed the controversy. The tough primary, sparked with Scott’s statewide newspaper ads proclaiming “Mercy, Mr. Percy!” got everyone riled up but the battle was good for the Illinois Republican party. Percy won the primary and lost to Otto Kerner but the residual effect of the Goldwater campaign sent many thousands of energetic workers to campaigns and ultimately both Percy and Scott headed factions that cooperated with each other. The Goldwater campaign in California produced Ronald Reagan as campaigner and he ran a hot primary for governor against liberal George Christopher with the party the beneficiary.

Traditionally, many Republicans bewail hot primaries, believing that the party should be pervaded with the peace of the tomb. Not so. Nor does the multiplicity of candidates evidently threaten that the liberal Topinka will be nominated. Gidwitz, even with Rauschenberger as his Lt. Governor, doesn’t register much. Brady’s highpoint may have been his victory at the Conservative Summit. Thus the race seems to boil down to Topinka and Oberweis. Indeed, perhaps if the GOP needs one thing it is a boiling hot primary between two sharply divergent points of view—the social liberality of Topinka, the conservative position of Oberweis—which will see many thousands of Republicans turn out. Oberweis seems to be a candidate who benefits from experience: hitting the trail with enthusiasm and making a smooth performance with his stump speech. He is, in fact, the kind of candidate many Republicans have sought for a long time—one who made his mark in business and as a startlingly accurate economic forecaster. Mainstream media notwithstanding, he may very well be not only an excellent candidate but the kind of governor the doctor ordered for deficit-ridden Illinois.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

One More Thing About McCarthy Now That We Mark His Death

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One important remembrance I have of Gene McCarthy came to mind after I wrote my impressions of this man of whom I was so fond for many years. As you know, he ran for president also in 1972 and as an independent in 1976. It was in 1976 when the Republican nominee was President Gerald Ford that his staff called me and said that he would appreciate getting away from the grind and having dinner at my house. It so happened we were entertaining two couples from Quaker that night and we invited him. He brought his top staffer, a good friend with whom I had graduated and two Secret Service men who occupied our back bedroom and who sent out for pizza (the Secret Service men making a deep impression on my mother-in-law and my then little kids). After an evening of great entertainment, when Gene was at his best, he and his aide drew me aside and told me what was on their minds.

It was an ingenious concocted stratagem. If it had been employed, I can only say that Gerald Ford could have had a better shot at being returned to the White House over Jimmy Carter. Explaining it is rather tricky. The campaign finance law that was in effect that year prescribed that candidates of the two major parties observe fund-raising limits and after the nominating conventions they were to be out of commission for the purpose of fund-raising and would be dependent on monies from the respective national party committees. But McCarthy as an independent candidate for president could continue to receive contributions—unlimitedly. This was McCarthy’s proposal which was brilliant and entirely do-able. After the two conventions, Republican financiers should raise tons of money for McCarthy because (a) they can’t give any money to Ford anyhow and (b) the race between Ford and Carter in certain selected states, Ohio being one of them, were very close. If Gene could go on television in those states, he could very possibly swing Democratic votes to himself and while McCarthy could not be elected, Carter could be defeated.

After studying their map, I became convinced that Gene McCarthy wanted, more than anything in the world, to defeat Carter. I talked to a number of people about it, Bob Stuart being onel (nothing eventuated there) but Mrs. Gus Hart another (and she pitched in for McCarthy because, frankly, she favored him more than Ford or Carter). I went to see former governor Dick Ogilvie who was running the Ford campaign. To my astonishment, he dismissed it and actively opposed it. The thought of Gene McCarthy giving us an idea that would elect Ford and Ogilvie dismissing it has long caused me suspicion about Ogilvie (whom I regarded as one of the coldest-eyed cynics I ever met in this game). McCarthy, on the other hand, was not cynical. I’m convinced he felt that here was a brilliant chance to affect the election in a significant way, recognizing that he could not be elected himself.

McCarthy was, essentially, a libertarian in his philosophical formation and felt more comfortable with Ford than Carter—although, assuredly, he wanted to repay his old party for fancied rebuffs. I have always fantasized about how history would have been changed if, through this device, Ford had won. Four years later McCarthy came out for Reagan. He wanted to be ambassador to the United Nations which, in some ways, he was uniquely qualified to fill. Whether he would have gotten along with Al Haig and George Shultz I don’t know (I doubt it). As to Ogilvie and why he didn’t buy it, the ex-governor was a thorough-going unimaginative political hack who hugged the cards close to his chest and didn’t want a McCarthy or anyone else to get credit (he fancying himself as Ford’ AG). I’ve always felt Ogilvie was one of our more inflated personages who ingratiated himself to the liberals by passing a state income tax after a campaign where he stayed mum on the subject.

Was Christ Ever in Christmas? A Dissent from David Graf

Anent the piece I did about The Catholic New World’s Tom Sheridan, contributor David P. Graf writes:
“Considering how almost everything about the way we celebrate Christmas has its roots in paganism or other religions, it’s a big disingenuous thing to talk about it as a `spiritual event.’ It’s not a matter of faith. There’s nothing in the Bible about celebrating Christ’s birth not does the celebration show up in any of our creeds. When we defend Christmas, I’m not sure what we’re defending but we’re certainly not defending Christ or Christianity.”

Response: David, I appreciate your comments. I think you confuse two things: the literal date, day, month, of Christ’s birth which we don’t know—and the importance of the feast day itself. True, the date of an early pagan observance was adopted but the exact date since it is unknowable. Yet the feast of the Nativity is the most important celebration in the Christian calendar because it marks our own possible redemption. In Advent the coming of Christ is anticipated, looking back to the age of prophecy which foretold the birth of the Messiah: thus it most certainly is in both Old and New Testaments. I assume you’re familiar with Luke telling of the birth of Christ and Luke is the only evangelist who gives it in detail. He recounts 10 episodes in all: including the annunciation of John the Baptist’s birth as forerunner of Christ, announcement of Jesus’ forthcoming birth to Mary, the visit of Mary to Elizabeth where the unborn John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. Luke tells the Nativity story from Mary’s perspective, of the visit to her by the Angel Gabriel, her acceptance of God’s will. The birth is said to have taken place when Ouirinius was governor of Syria and citizens had to travel to their ancestral towns to register for the census.

Then Luke records Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable. Angels announce the birth to shepherds who left their flocks to observe the child. Luke the physician serves as a superb reporter, writing “since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account.” After Mary observes her 40 days of ritual purification, she goes with Joseph to the temple to present Jesus to God. There Simeon and Anna, two elderly persons, recognize the infant as the promise Messiah with Simeon concluding that Jesus would cause many in Israel to fall and rise and bring deep sorrow to the heart of Mary. So the Nativity is front and center as a harbinger in the Jewish bible and in the New Testament. As to the Nativity not showing up in the creeds, in the Apostles Creed the wording is “and in Jesus Christ, our Lord who was born of the Virgin Mary.” In the Nicene Creed it is “in our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father.” In Advent the Christian church refers to the historic prophecies of Christ’s coming, citing the age of prophecy which foretold the birth of the Messiah and looking ahead prophetically to His coming at the dawn of each person’s eternity and His coming on the last day of the present world.

You say “when we defend Christmas I’m not sure what we’re defending but we’re sure not defending Christ or Christianity.” I can only say that you are totally theologically and historically wrong in this. It is unreasonable to insist that Christmas, the observance of Christ’s birth, does not pertain to Christianity. Indeed, that’s the central issue as to what Christianity is all about. And if you think we’re absolved from celebrating Christmas because Luke didn’t specifically recommend doing so in his gospel, I can only say that as he scribbled out his words, this physician was also rather busy with more immediate needs: tending to Paul’s infirmities, trailing Paul and writing all the while, accompanying Paul when he went to jail in Phillipi and ultimately to Rome where the Apostle to the Gentiles was beheaded. After writing of the miraculous birth of Jesus, it would be redundant to suggest that now and henceforth everyone should celebrate the day. It’s rather obvious. I urge you to think it over. But I do value your comments.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Catholic New World Weighs in On the Wrong Side

observations_apr03
Leave it to Tom Sheridan, the stylishly liberal ex-Sun Times deputy editorial page editor who now runs the Chicago Catholic New World, the official publication for the archdiocese of Chicago. Sheridan, a deacon, who never really recovered from the days when to be for social justice was to be ultra-trendy, can be counted on to low-ball the pro-life mission of the church in favor of pushing the more fashionable lefty causes. How unlike Cardinal Francis George who has nobly stood up for the total teachings of the Church without p.r. cosmetics. Anyhow, just when traditionalists were making some progress in overcoming the orgy of materialism and getting the stores to recognize Christmas rather than some winter solstice, you can count that good old Sheridan will come riding to the rescue with a typically vague front page column that requires a metaphysician to analyze—but which, predictably, comes out on the side of the secularists.

Sheridan starts out with a typical straw-man argument: “Memo to people worried about the banishment of Christmas.” We’re not worried about the banishment of Christmas, my dear Tom, just the mauling of it for commercial purposes by advertisers who refuse to recognize its spiritual significance: and it’s not an oversight but purposeful. Sheridan: “Well, guess what? They were wrong. Christmas will happen, just you wait.” Then, “but here’s my point: If you need a store clerk wishing you Merry Christmas to remind you of the birth of Christ, then you have a bigger problem that just finding the right gift to put under the tree for Uncle Joe.” Explaining it to Sheridan might take longer than he deserves but here’s one try. Tom, we don’t need store clerks wishing us Merry Christmas to remind us of that fact, and it’s rather duplicitous of you to spin the argument that way. We just feel it’s not too much to ask the folks who benefit hugely from commercial sales revolving around a spiritual event to take cognizance of the spiritual event. By the way, your boss, Cardinal George gets the point very well in a column adjoining yours. I’d reprint some of it but since you edit it you’re very familiar with it and very familiar with the argument about the necessity to fight secularism: so come off it, don’t be cutesy with us and don’t try to snow the troops with fake erudition.

Get the Political Correctness with the Associated Press

Many years ago when I was a stringer for them, the Associated Press was the grey old lady of the wire services, differing from the racier United Press International by a conservative toning-down of language. Not so anymore. In the one-upmanship race to zing George W. Bush, often the AP leads the pack with twisted writing and intended slanting. Understand, a left-leaning AP is different from my credo of a return to admittedly partisan newspapers. The wire service, above all, should attempt to put things in as objective a perspective as possible.

The slanting comes not only in political stories but in word choice involving the bias of the writer. Today’s feature story is about a frigate bird named Lydia which was hooked up to a monitor by the American Bird Conservancy. Lydia, a scavenger with a wingspan of over 8 feet, was recorded as starting on a journey from Christmas Island National Park in search for food for her young. She flew more than 26 days and 2,500 miles to Indonesia’s Java and Sumatra islands to get food for her baby and bring it back. Who took care of the chick while she was away? Get this: not her mate, which is the approved terminology which signifies a kind of mom and pop relationship—but her “partner.” AP writer Michael Casey wrote: “Leaving a baby chick in the care of her partner…” Minor you say? Every little bit here and there nurtures a belief system. Now birds don’t have mates but partners.

Speaker Madigan’s Spoiled Brat Forcing Contributions to the Red Cross? What is this, the old USSR?

Today’s Sun-Times exclusive story has state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, the impeccable pro-abort chief legal officer, forcing alleged…not convicted…gas gougers to give to the Red Cross or she will institute “other options including the filing of a lawsuit” smacks of the insuperable arrogance long been associated with her. A towering ego, prompted by several years of laudatory media coverage and the protection by her powerful step-father against the harsh winds of controversy, has led to this little-girl-like tantrum. She stamps her tiny foot and big operators cringe. The alleged offenders are 18 gas station owners across Illinois who raised their prices sharply after Hurricane Katrina. Understand, the gas station owners are not convicted, merely suspected. Madigan demands they fork over $1,000 apiece to the Red Cross. Why the Red Cross? Because that agency was the recipient of funds in 2001 from a price-gouging case won by Madigan’s predecessor, Jim Ryan. I don’t care if Jim Ryan did it or not—the idea of a politician picking a charity and forcing people to contribute and this before any conviction is repugnant. She has no power, as a court would, to force contributions but only the threat of a future lawsuit. Sounds the height of arrogance to me.

Incidentally, the head of the Red Cross just stepped down under pressure because of supposed slowness in responding to Katrina.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Private Poll Shows Jackson Competitive in Parts, Strong in Others Against Daley

A private poll taken in mid-November shows Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. in a competitive position to challenge Mayor Richard Daley if, in fact, the Congressman wishes to do it. The in-depth survey, taken by Lake Research Partners, shows the Congressman in a strongly competitive position, which would certainly be taken into account as he makes a final decision to run for Mayor in 2007. Jackson has almost nothing to lose by running since the mayoralty election comes in the middle of his congressional term. There was a significant number of “slippage” in the poll which is deemed not good for an incumbent. After a series of questions, 26 percent said Daley was doing “just fair.”

A portion of the poll that can be released shows Daley ahead of Jackson which veteran observers agree is not unusual given the Daley prominence—but with the numbers in flux. A key question has Daley significantly under 50 percent approval—a major weakness in a longstanding incumbency. Almost 38 percent want to see Daley reelected but an almost equal number—32 percent—would consider someone else. The two are just about head-to-head in job approval and disapproval. Sixty-one percent approve the job Daley’s doing with 36 percent disapproving. Sixty-five percent approve of the job Jackson’s doing with 27 percent disapproving. The closeness of the Daley-Jackson numbers signifies that the mayoralty is by no means a slam-dunk for Daley when he is paired with the young, well-known Congressman. Veteran poll-watchers cite what they call a “dynamic statistic”—the fact that news about City Hall is making Daley appear less favorable to 45 percent compared to only 9 percent more favorable. With ongoing federal probes into the Daley administration, less favorable news is exceedingly likely to surface in the next year.

Jackson tops Daley on his feel for ethics (24-17), on standing up for what he believes (31 to 24) with a plurality of respondents believing that Jackson will fight corruption better than Daley (42-30). Jackson trounces Daley on perceptual issues, with a heavy plurality believing Daley is “too tied to political cronies” (52), “too arrogant” (41), “too tied to special interests” (41). Fifty-nine percent felt the following statement about Daley was convincing: If Mayor Daley were not aware of scandals in his administration, he was negligent. Sixty-two percent identified with the thought that corruption under Daley is out of control. Fifty-one percent felt convincing the argument that the scandals have distracted Daley and rendered him “no longer effective.” Fifty-three percent feel that either ineptitude or corruption in the Daley administration signifies the need to “get Chicago moving again.” Fifty-eight percent agree that “Chicago is becoming like other big cities, where people `pay to play.’” Thirty-nine percent believe Jackson should run for mayor while 24 percent do not with a hefty margin of 27 percent not sure.

The list of concerns Chicagoans feel seems to tilt in Jackson’s favor. Education and schools tops the list (with 23 percent), followed by corruption in government (11 percent) and crime and drugs (10 percent). Probably the most significant portion of the poll shows a high percentage of favorability for Rep. Luis Gutierrez—59 percent. Contrary to some misconception, the trend of Hispanic voters is to side with the regular Democratic candidate vis Daley. . Were Gutierrez to run in a three-way race, votes would likely be taken from Daley which would topple the long-entrenched incumbent. Gutierrez has been alternately a critic of and supporter of Daley. Most recently he has engaged in a spat with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Il), a prime Daley fixture who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee, alleging that Emanuel has advised marginal Democratic congressmen to oppose immigration measures so as to shore up their base, a charge Emanuel weakly and not entirely convincingly answered.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Gene McCarthy and Rumors in the Bars

In 1964 I was rounding out nine years as an operative (publicist, researcher, speech-writer) of the Minnesota Republican party and preparing to return to my Chicago hometown to take a job at The Quaker Oats Company. On tap for the state GOP that year was to find a way to sell Barry Goldwater to a state where Hubert Humphrey was running for vice president…and to defeat Gene McCarthy who was running for his second term in the Senate. Awed by the task, I was very happy to leave the land of 10,000 lakes, particularly where it involved running a candidate against McCarthy who was a friend of mine.

Before I left, the party hired a strategist from out-of-state to fill my shoes. I must say I was not impressed when I met him, tall with burning eyes that seemed to have glimpsed the third ring of hell. I hung around for a couple of weeks before I started at Quaker, long enough to sit with the party elders and review a proposed budget this guy developed for the year. One line on the budget caught my attention: Rumors in the bars…$15,000.

When he came in to justify the budget, it was just before lunch. I asked him, “what’s this: rumors in the bars? $15,000.” He answered: List it as an item any way you want to, but an indispensable part of the campaign should be rumors in the bars.

As it turned out, our headquarters was just upstairs of a bar and we went there for a beer and a sandwich.

“The thing works like this,” he said. We were standing at a crowded bar, with salesmen and business types catching a sandwich and a cold one before returning to the fray. He caught the bartender’s eye and ordered two beers and sandwiches for us. As the barkeep brought the lunch, this guy turned to me and in a voice that was not necessarily loud but distinct so that it was a tone higher than the rumble over the bar, said:

“Yes, it’s a damned shame about Gene McCarthy. Here’s a guy in the prime of life.”

I noticed the bartender was listening as he stepped to the cash register to make change. Then this guy said:

“How old would he be—McCarthy?”

I knew. I said: “he’s 48.”

“Forty-eight. What a tragedy.”

Several people perked up and studied him as he shook his head. “Forty-eight is just getting started in life. He’s got a wife and kids. Forty-eight. Forty-eight.”

He stared at his beer for a long time, then poured it in his glass and said, with an eerie finality: “Well, that’s how life is, isn’t it?”

The bartender was going to ask him but the guy sitting next to us beat him to it. “What’s wrong with McCarthy. Is he sick or something?”

He said, “You’ve seen, I’m sure, how pale he is. Pale. Seems every day he’s paler.”

The guy sitting next said, “well, yeah. Is he sick or something.”

“That’s how leukemia is,” he said. “One day you’re a six-foot-four-inch former baseball player, hockey player, elected to Congress and then the Senate and the next day—.” He brought his fist down on the bar. “The next day—that’s it.”

By then there was a stirring at the bar. One guy said, “I hear that if you get it early--.”

“Oh sure,” said my guy. “If you get it early. Sure. That’s right. Get it early. And maybe they have. Who knows?”

We ate our lunch and he said: “That’s what I want to do. Rumors in the bars. Each field representative would have a budget to do this kind of thing. It’s not totally determinative but it’s significant.”

You know, I said, maybe it’s a good thing I’m getting out of this business. I think it’s awful.

He gave me a knowing look and said, “yeah, isn’t it?”

Before I left, I told the party godfathers it was a bad idea. Then I left the state. About two months later, in reading The Minneapolis Star, I saw an article where McCarthy was heatedly denying he was fatally ill with leukemia. But the story stayed with him for years. When I next saw him, several years down the road, I asked him what started the rumor about his leukemia.

“A real mystery,” he said. “It started the summer of 1964. Then I came down with a cold. I stayed home in order to rest up for the campaign. By the time I got back, it was going full-force. It’s never really gone away—the rumor, I mean, not the leukemia. Obviously I never had leukemia. I told him that I was present at the creation. No, I didn’t start it but I was there when it was born. And I told him it was a $15,000 investment in a new type of communication: rumors in the bars.

I should never have told him that because he never entirely disabused himself that I didn’t do it. But he didn’t worry too much because he was safely reelected. And so far as we know, the bartender and the guy who started the rumor might well have passed away. Anyhow, McCarthy died last week at age 89 from old age, Parkinson’s and many assorted ills. But not leukemia.

But the same guy must have been working both sides of the street, who knows? There was a rumor, for instance, that Mamie Eisenhower was a drunk. She really had an ear infection that caused her to seem wobbly and off-balance on occasion. What about the rumor that George W. Bush used improper influence to get in the National Guard? Dan Rather fell for that one. There was a rumor that his father was carrying on with a woman on his staff named Jennifer Fitzgerald—which made the rounds until they published her photograph. There was the rumor that Adlai Stevenson, the former governor of Illinois, liked guys. No, just the opposite: a divorced man, he was very close to a number of women including Joan Fontaine.

Then there was the rumor that Nixon was tricky. No, that one was on the level.

Topinka v. Oberweis is the Way It Looks for Now

The Illinois Republican governorship race seems increasingly to be between Topinka and Oberweis, with the future of the GOP very much caught up in that contest. On the Democratic side, I would imagine that Edwin Eisendrath could give Rod Blagojevich a pretty good tussle with the possibility that at the very least, the Dems would emerge with as bloody a victor as the Republicans after the Topinka-Oberweis struggle. I can’t see Bill Brady doing much to move in a competitive position to Oberweis.

Appearance on the Bruce DuMont Show: Beyond the Beltway

I taped a one-hour appearance on the Bruce DuMont radio-TV show for broadcast on WLS radio and WYCC, the other public television in Chicago over the Christmas-New Year holidays (don’t ask me when it appears; it’s very complicated and as soon as he told me I forgot it: set it up to advanced age). One hour (with other people) shows on this-and-this time and our hour on this-and-this…aw forget it. Many of you are regular Bruce listeners-watchers anyhow so you’ll catch it. Anyhow, on our segment were Dan Miller, the very bright and superbly articulate Business Editor of the Sun-Times, pro-supply side, libertarian (the brightest light of the so-called “Bright One”) and Jacky (that’s how she spells it) Grimshaw, a longtime political and community activist who was Harold Washington’s assistant in charge of politics.

On the show we were asked to name the winner and loser of the year in politics. As winner I named Bush whose Iraq policy has been ratified by the exemplary turn in the elections over there. In fact, I said what I have written here before, that if this pans out—as I think it will—Bush will go down as a greater president than Ronald Reagan. My point is not to diss Reagan but simply to reiterate that he put an economy to a winning stance after inheriting a bum one from Carter and that he won the Cold War: not too shabby. But Reagan had a kind of inherited course in the Cold War—firmness in the face of threat as exemplified by Truman (except in the case of China), Ike, Kennedy (to some degree with the exception of the disastrous Bay of Pigs) and, to some extent, Nixon. By winning tax cuts in the face of a united Democratic opposition and Democratic control of the Senate at one point, Bush improved the economy immeasurably and by seizing the initiative and invading Iraq—also putting into effect a hitherto secret spying system—Bush applied preemptive force instead of reactive force and may well have spared us another attack. Also he set into play a brilliantly effective preemptive strategy for his successor to follow.

This doesn’t mean that I endorse conduct of the war which, like all wars, was waged strictly on trial and error—but it’s my contention that Bush will go down as a legendary president—and to some degree greater than Reagan who was very great indeed. On the question of who was the loser of the year, I said the national Democratic party because of its implacable obstruction, pig-headed obstruction to the war (with the exception of Joe Lieberman). In fact the Democrats’ action thus far remind me of the old isolationist obstruction of World War II which seemed destined for continued national rejection until the coming of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. What worries me greatly is that it’s a certainty that they will gain power at some future time, just because of the fatigue factor with Republicans—and I can’t, for the life of me, imagine whom they’ll find to give a semblance of creative energy to the task that Bush so nobly advanced. To all of this Ms. Jacky was adamantly opposed, proving the point. When I made my statement about Bush possibly exceeding Reagan, she drew herself up in horror and expressed astonishment that I had just insulted Reagan! That’s the first time she ever expressed, in my twenty-year jousts with her, any appreciation for Reagan—and I’m sure it was contrived for mock stage effect. But it seemed that all of us believe that Hillary will be the logical candidate for president. The fact that she has made some noises about supporting the war shouldn’t mislead anyone: she recognizes the folly of being intractable on the war.

When we talked about the future of the Republican party, Bruce and I (I don’t recall just now where Dan Miller came down) said the Rudy Giuliani was the most exciting candidate, I saying that his promise could only be redeemed if he changed his position on social issues. Neither of us liked McCain although Ms. Jacky thought he was very good—for a Republican. Her privately expressed views about Clarence Thomas during an interim in the show were pro forma boiler-plate African American liberal. I would like to think her implacable stand represents the older generation of the African American community—but, with notable exceptions such as my friend Frank Penn, I’m not so sure.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Eisendrath and Berkowitz Produced a Good Show—Against Odds

A president’s report to the people on Iraq and a Bears game but these didn’t interfere with an extraordinarily good show on “Shootout.” Edwin Eisendrath presented the picture of a thoughtful liberal, not vastly different from Rod Blagojevich (at least on foreign policy). Eisendrath surprised me by not ruling out a general tax increase. Berkowitz was his usual outstanding machine-gun popping questioning self. There’ll be no show next week, Christmas Day or the following, New Years Day. Then back to the grind.

The Sun-Times As Theme Park: Showing Us How to Be Hip

Let me point out what I think I said before: the Sun-Times is a very good newspaper in its news reportage of the Chicago area. What bothers me is that it is being edited like a theme park. A theme park recreates a time that is supposed to be fun:. “Wild West Town,” “Nineteenth Century Town.” The Sun-Times has decided that it will be the “hip” newspaper and so has sprinkled various columns throughout written, often, by semi-literate youth to build up the hip image. That has played hob with its regular coverage. As I’ve mentioned before, Cathleen (with a “C”) Falsani is the Religion Editor who knows nothing about religion, which she demonstrates frequently. But she’s hip. One column purportedly on religion blasted Bush on the war without the slightest theological reference (understandable since the lady doesn’t know theology). Last week Ms. Falsani’s column informed us that she is edified because her mother and father smooth in restaurants.

Ms. Falsani’s picture is of a youngster who looks for all the world like one who has barely stopped popping her gum. This is a reporter the paper sends to Rome when the conclave elects a Pope? About Lynn Sweet I have no more complaint because the paper recently decided to be a harshly partisan one in the mode of the early 20th century. Being liberal is hip and Sweet, the Washington correspondent, is admirably equipped to cover liberaldom. Neil Steinberg, now that he is back with us, is obviously supposed to be the hipster feature-writer who shows us how young men think. Richard Roeper is supposed to show us how young bachelors think, although he’s pretty long in the tooth. Father Greeley is supposed to instruct us on how a priest can be hip. Carol Marin carries the title political columnist, but she’s not that: she’s the middle-aged hip Common Cause-style outraged moralist, writing an attack on Bush because one Arab she knows feels he has been wrongly suspected (and she agrees). Laura Washington is the hip black woman who can’t help being a Democrat because it’s not hip for blacks to be anything else. Mary Mitchell is another hip woman who equates black aspirations with the Democratic party. No independence for them. They’re crafted to fit a hip stereotype.

Debra Pickett is the hip young married and she presides over the “Smart Girls’ Book Club.” A few conservative syndicated columnists are sprinkled and there you have it! How to be hip. Despite all that, the overworked, underpaid news staff is neither hip nor non-hip but very good and deserves a Pulitzer for investigatory journalism. It’s there if you can get around the hip.

Monday, December 19, 2005

When Will They Stop Re-Tooling the Bible? Leave it Alone, Will Ya?

Regular church-going Catholics are right to feel a jarring in reading, or singing from the scriptures. That’s because of the New American Bible (NAB) and other versions: Revised NAB or re-revised amended NAB the wording changes significantly—and with it, some tradition. None other than my favorite, witty and sage commentator on the liturgy, Father Richard John Neuhaus (former Lutheran pastor, civil rights leader who marched with King and demonstrated against Vietnam before he became a conservative, then Catholic, then priest) has zinged modern translations in his exemplary magazine, “First Things.”

Take, for instance, the elevating word in Handel’s “Messiah”: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” [Isaiah 9:6. King James Version]. But Catholic scholars, striving to be oh so literal to the Hebrew render it: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” As Neuhaus says: “Try singing that. Whether under the rules of literal accuracy or of what, taking liberties translators call `dynamic equivalence’ that is no more than a pedantic transliteration of the Hebrew. It is not a translation. It is a string of possible signifiers. It is not English.”

There is enough to quarrel about in Christendom among the various churches that we all ought to be able to reach one academically-approved version and stick with it. But no. Take Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” King James has the psalm concluding with: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That’s basically what I heard as a child, influenced by my Protestant neighbors who utilized King James and not the Catholic Douay-Rheims (I have always greatly preferred the Protestant King James version of this psalm: sorry to be a heretic). Douay-Rheims, has it that they will “dwell in the house of the Lord for length of days.” Now, is that the same as forever or just a fairly long time? Contrast that with the horrendous NAB: “I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” As Neuhaus wonders: how long is that? Ten years? Twenty? It’s long been my feeling that these new translations are just a kind of Biblical one-upmanship, to show that our scholars can do a better job than what was done heretofore. My personal preference is for King James (I know, I know, presumably scholarship has advanced since those days: but the sublime resonance that trained Lincoln in rhetoric shouldn’t be dismissed). I’ll receive some barbed comments on this from Catholics, I know. Flail away.

As I Post My Sunday Tribune Op Ed on the Jackson Challenge

to Richard M. Daley, there will be some who say: what’s a good conservative boy like you flirting with Rep. Jesse Jackson for mayor of Chicago? The answer is simple and three-fold. First, Daley may have beautified the city but he and his antecedents have been at the trough too long. While it’s perfectly valid so say with some cynicism: when you purify the pond the lilies die, it is also valid to stir the pond so as to dislodge the undergrowth—this particular undergrowth having lain on the bottom of the pond since Anton Cermak in 1931.

Second, in response to those social conservatives who say: “what’s a good conservative pro-lifer like you doing siding with Rep. Jesse Jackson, a pro-abort?” let me remind you that there is probably nothing so venal and duplicitous as a pro-lifer turned pro-abort which is what Richard Daley is. Until the real millennium comes (not the park) when a candidate appears who can run on socially conservative principles and stand a chance of getting in, I will side more nearly with one who has never betrayed the cause rather than one who has. Third—I seem to have forgotten…but two reasons should be enough.

Unlikely rebel takes on Daley Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., former BGA chief give a boost to a fired payroller tilting at a windmill

Published in the Chicago Tribune, 12-18-05

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) came to my suburb of Park Ridge to speak and got a standing ovation.

Let me explain: It was July 15 and the VFW Hall was (what used to be in the old days) a bigot's stone's throw from 98 percent white Edison Park, jewel of the Northwest Side's 41st Ward, where I grew up. The crowd of 250 was heavily, I want to say extremely, white, full of city workers, both blue and white collars, plus cops and firefighters.

The purpose of the meeting: to figure out how to replace the Irish princeling Richard M. Daley with the African-American country preacher's son, Jackson.

As my sainted North Side German aunts would say: What's happened to Chicago?

It's simple. Most of the 41st is suburban in looks and temperament, and if Frank Coconate (more about him later) plays it right, he can figure importantly in any effort to dump Daley. What would help him do it? O'Hare International Airport, which is within the 41st.

The race issue is not dead, but it's dormant for a neighborhood that is worried about Daley's pet O'Hare expansion. But even O'Hare isn't the whole story. The 41st is boiling over with anger about corruption. People are seething about high taxes and steaming when they read about how much money has been stolen.

Then there came before the group a thin white-haired sage, looking like an advance man for a famine, reading glasses perched on the very tip of his nose: Terry Brunner. Brunner, who is nearly 70, is the former federal prosecutor who headed the corruption-fighting Better Government Association for almost three decades and heads the Aviation Integrity Project, which has charged corruption in the O'Hare expansion. Brunner isn't an exciting speaker, but his factual recitation stirred the crowd to hot anger.

He waved a thick book of research and told them that Daley is waist deep in corruption. Brunner ticked off the connections that are familiar to anyone who reads the papers, starting with John Daley, the mayor's brother, making a half-million as an insurance broker on O'Hare concessions.

When he finished reciting the litany, Brunner introduced Frank Coconate. Bullet-headed Coconate, a city worker since age 19, was fired from his $62,000-a-year job after 27 years with the city's water department because as a little fish he wouldn't play along with the Daleys.

Coconate is different from father and brothers who worked for the city. He is interested in politics and unwilling to pull his forelock deferentially and wait in line. "I looked at some of those nitwits who were running for state rep. and I said, `They're morons, so I'm going to give it a try.'" Of course that meant running as a Democrat insurgent because there's only one party in Chicago.

That's where he either made a mistake or the smartest decision of his life.

He was vetoed by the Daley-ites so he ran in 1998, 2000 and 2002 on his own as an independent Democrat, campaigning against the Daley O'Hare expansion. He got clobbered all three times.

In 2002 he had name recognition, got all the community newspaper endorsements and became the front-runner. But that's not the way Daley democracy is played. "I think there had to be 2,000 [city-paid] workers in the district," he told me. "They ripped up my signs. My wife and I walked over to the polling place on Election Day, and there was 20 guys, maybe more, in a truck working against me." With that, Coconate resolved to fight all the harder. He blasted Daley for balancing his budget on the backs of the workers while creating beauteous Millennium Park with its vast cost overruns, telling the newspapers and TV about inside deals, hirings and firings.

Which meant, of course, that Coconate was fired on July 21.

When Coconate, the father of three young kids, finished his colorful and highly entertaining speech to his 41st Ward Democratic organization, he introduced Jesse Jackson Jr. Following Brunner and Coconate was tough, but Jackson struck exactly the right tone.

Beginning with calm, his voice measured and low, he pointed out that the Daley organization is doing much more than misappropriating money, paying their family and friends with juicy contracts. They are stripping Coconate of his 1st Amendment rights. He has a right to seek redress of grievance, said Jackson, a lawyer. He has a right to write letters to the papers if he wants to. He has a right to run for public office against the Daley choice if he wants to. He even worked in Jesus Christ, although for the life of me I don't know how it fit.

And when he talked 1st Amendment, the crowd whooped it up so loud that Jackson had to extend both his hands to urge calm. Watching it on video, I recalled a lesson from a misty past where my Irish grandfather, a marble layer, went to the old Coliseum on 63rd Street on another terribly hot day. That 1896 Democratic Convention crowd was much greater but it was rebelling against safe, handpicked choices the party rulers were serving them.

That's when a young congressman from far away got up--unfamiliar to most of the crowd. When he got their attention, William Jennings Bryan held off their applause with both hands. The issue was Wall Street's affection for the gold standard, an esoteric issue to many. His voice lowered but resonant enough to carry across the stage, he said, "We shall answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns."

The crowd exploded.

He had one final sentence, and they hushed to hear it: "You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!" The young congressman not only upset the bosses' plans, he got the presidential nomination.

On the Northwest Side, there are those who despise Daley in the same way 19th Century workers despised Wall Street. They figure they will dump him--not by carrying the Northwest Side; that can never be. But by holding Daley to under 70 percent in the 45th, 39th, 38th, 36th. And especially in Coconate's 41st. This will enable the Daley dynasty to be toppled before the mammoth black turnout on the South and West Sides.

Coconate believes the rally in July was just the beginning.

McCain: The Hero as Opportunist

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rudy bush
Nothing that has gone into making one a hero extends immunity over other facets of faulty judgment and bad character. Rudy Giuliani, who tamed New York and cleaned up Times Square, behaved with coolness and courage on 9/11 in the face of crisis, still carries within his psyche the madcap who married first his cousin (before discovering their relationship) during his tenure, then an ex-TV anchor-woman who starred in “The Vagina Monologues” before finally living with and marrying a third. Character doesn’t trump aberrant behavior. Notwithstanding, Giuliani has the dash and excitement to make a first-rate presidential candidate (and possibly a terrific president). Given that the president must often show creativity in response to danger and leap over bureaucracy with a single bound, must risk scorn to protect the nation (as Bush has demonstrated), there is little doubt that Giuliani has the wherewithal to do that—if. If he could adopt a social view that would appeal to the most significant element of the Republican base. Whether he will is anyone’s guess.

Given needed social policy adjustment, Giuliani would have little or no trouble being accepted by the GOP’s dominant conservative base. Even now with notable policy imperfections, Giuliani has become an icon for the right. He returned the cesspool on the Hudson to a reasonable facsimile of order—bucking everything the cyclonic liberal winds in his city could throw at him. There is little doubt that his views on the judiciary are conservative (he selected and processed judges as associate AG under Reagan). There is every reason to expect that his views on fighting terrorism are intense and identical to Bush’s. He is more conservative than Bush on some things: his mayoral action showing that he believes that the arts that accept public funds must have respect for public civility—or sacrifice the funds (on which Bush has been silent). In fact, in a head-to-head match with Hillary Clinton, even if he were not to change his social stance, conservatives would have no trouble in making their choice.

Not so with John McCain. McCain’s bravery as a prisoner-of-war is well known and hugely celebrated: in particular his rejection of the offer to be freed before his colleagues due to his being the son of an admiral. But this exemplary action should not be considered, by itself, a recommendation for the presidency: after all, Americans loved George Patton in World War II but would not have relished putting him in the presidency after they discovered he believed that he had an earlier life as a member of Julius Caesar’s legions, nor Sergeant York. Not so well known is the details in the book “The Nightingale’s Song” by Robert Timberg [Simon & Schuster: 1995], an award-winning journalist, Naval Academy graduate, Marine veteran of Vietnam who was The Baltimore Sun’s White House correspondent during the Reagan years. Timberg’s book shows how, after returning from Vietnam, McCain ditched his wife for one presumptive reason that since she was seriously injured in an automobile accident while he was away changing her drastically from the “Long, Tall Sally” he dreamed of as a captive, turning into a woman shorter, older and crippled. Carol McCain maintains that the divorce “had more with John at age 40 wanting to be 25 again.” Whatever. McCain says “she has a right to be bitter” whatever that means: what is incontrovertible is that he felt he did not love her anymore. The book is balanced but portions can be seen as a raking condemnation of McCain, written long before there was a hint of McCain as a presidential candidate.

Some presidential campaigns concerning war heroes have a way of bringing them crashing back to earth. Admiral George Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay, was destined to be the consummate hero in the style of Washington, Jackson and Grant only to goof it up by announcing his amazingly ill-considered view of the presidency: as one who would merely enforce the laws already put on the books, so no big deal. McCain has gotten away with much and the time is fast coming when he will be held to account. He was, after all, one of the Keating Five. To rectify that, he became an overnight “reformer” and co-author of the McCain Feingold bill which throttles First Amendment liberties. There is very little of the moderate anything in John McCain: in Washington he’s known as an insatiable media freak with a yen to be loved by liberals. The arrogant young fly-jockey in Timberg’s book who crashed frequently including on a carrier due to his carelessness, has become the Senator who doesn’t care much about the nuances of legislation that endangers American security, so long as he gets face-time on TV. He’s amazingly non-judgmental on issues which gain him attention. The other day he railed at Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Why? Because Stevens wrote into an appropriations bill the famous bete noire of all liberals, the very modest provision allowing drilling in Alaska.

McCain blew up. He shouted that Stevens had put him in a box where he had to vote for the appropriations and take the bad with the good. This is the same McCain who had done exactly the same thing to George W. Bush on the so-called “torture” provision, tightening it into legislation where it could not be separated—the same McCain who was heedless of what many experts called a threat to national security. The same McCain who dismissed Charles Krauthammer’s reasoned column that the law would prevent authorities from forcing a hostage to divulge where he put a ticking time bomb in Manhattan by saying: “Oh, if that’s the case than torture’s o.k.” But it’s not in the bill you grandstanded, Senator. And a cop or federal official who’s grilling a suspect will have to risk his career and possible jail time by forcing divulgence of information—all because you wanted a little glory press for 2008.

There’s nothing worse than quashing an examination of John McCain by saying we can’t criticize him now or in the future because in captivity thirty years ago he was a hero and the mainstream media have ordained him as their white-haired best hope. The lunging after notoriety and applause from liberal interest groups which is his specialty, his ditching of conservative social values and the unparalleled age starting out in the presidency at age 72 (Reagan was 69) deserves scrutiny.

Potpourri: Random Observations About Politics and Life

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As one who salutes the return of officially partisan newspapers on behalf of truth-in-labeling, I’m delighted to see fierce partisan Democrat Lynn Sweet, the Sun-Times Washington editor, banging the drums for Tammy Duckworth, the seriously wounded helicopter pilot who is running for the Democratic nomination for 6th district Congress. Sweet, thisclose to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the Democratic congressional campaign chief, slants her stories (twice in a few days) to encourage Christine Cegalis and Lindy Scott to get out of Duckworth’s way so as to further ensure a Democratic victory. While she’s at it, Sweet is also batting clean-up for Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) who a few weeks ago urged removal of troops immediately, Sweet reporting that Murtha put a 6-month timetable on withdrawal (which Murtha adjusted after he ran into political trouble with his earlier statement). Of course, Sweet doesn’t refer to Murtha’s change of heart as it would harm the Dems’ cause. Also, her partisan responsibilities preclude Sweet from ever reporting what other news sources have: that Emanuel convinced Nancy Pelosi from calling a vote on withdrawal which, given the number of dovish Dems, would have complicated Emanuel’s strategy to encourage moderation.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

How I Discovered Where Reagan Lived in Chicago

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Ronald Reagan was the only president ever to have lived any part of his life in Chicago. Private citizen Reagan mentioned that he had lived in Chicago when we talked through the O’Hare concourse—or rather struggled to walk through the concourse, given the crowds—in 1979. It struck me then that should this guy get elected, somebody ought to find the house.

At the O’Hare Hilton following the celebratory repair of the leaky bathroom faucet and the story drawn from his George Gipp days, I asked him when he lived here and where. He said: I lived here for two years when I was a little kid, from about four to six. And I don’t know where but I think it was on the Southside. When you’re that young you don’t have much of a recollection.

Even before he was elected, I was interested in finding out but set it aside. After he got elected, I set to the task at once. First, he was born in 1911 which, following his words, would put him in Chicago roughly from 1915 to 1917. His father was John R. Reagan. I went to the Chicago public library and looked up the old phone books from that era but phones were scarce for a lower middle class family of that era. Then I looked at the Chicago directories which listed families but the family wasn’t listed. Looking at his biographies, I saw that at most they only spent two years in town, probably before they could get listed. I considered trying to get in touch with his older brother, Neil but didn’t know how to do it. So I pondered some more.

I read where his father had worked as a shoe salesman at Marshall Field & Company. I checked Fields for personnel records but records from that far back had been destroyed. I let it pass until well after he was inaugurated and started again. It so happened that Henry Hyde’s wife, Jeanne, was working in the correspondence unit in the basement of the White House for a very wonderful woman named Anne Higgins (who had also done the same job for Richard Nixon). I asked Jeanne if she could pass the word “upstairs” and checked with her every so often. One day when I checked in, Jeanne was laughing. She said that she passed the word upstairs that this guy from Quaker Oats was interested in finding out where he lived in Chicago. He suggested trying Marshall Field’s but was told that was a dead end. Then he told Jeanne something very revelatory.

He said: My father was picked up often as a common drunk. The police records should have that fact.

I checked with the police and sure enough, they listed a John R. Reagan picked up often for common drunkenness in the 1915-17 years. And the address they had was 832 east 57th street, in Hyde Park, on the Southside. It was a two-flat and the Reagan’s lived on the second floor.(I paid a visit to the place, knocked on the door and told the black residents that their apartment was once inhabited by President Reagan. They didn’t seem impressed. I wrote the story later as an Op Ed for the Sun-Times which also published the picture of the very ordinary building in what was now a slum and indeed which when he lived there was not much better.

What struck me about that experience was the comfort that Reagan had living in his own skin, the son of an alcoholic, who suggested that his father’s detention records be looked up. Not many successful men—much less the president of the United States—would so voluntarily give out that information. Reagan referred to his father’s alcoholism several times notably in his first autobiography, “Where is the Rest of Me?,” recounting that he once he came home from school and found his father lying on the sidewalk, arms akimbo resembling very much a crucifix. This was the first time he had mentioned his father’s police record. There’s a greatness to that anecdote about the 40th president that means very much to me. I never saw him up close again: only from afar, at the 1984 convention and the 1985 inauguration.

Edwin Eisendrath and Jeff Berkowitz on My Show Sunday: A Must Listen

Guests on my WLS-AM program Sunday (8 p.m.) will be Edwin Eisendrath who will have formally announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor that morning…and Jeff Berkowitz, lawyer and news analyst for his own CAN-TV show. Wealthy by inheritance, Eisendrath, a lawyer and former HUD Chicago director under Bill Clinton, reportedly will have $20 million to spend to unseat Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the primary. Eisendrath was a highly rated alderman in Chicago and made a run against Syd Yates for Congress which he lost.

Yes, I’ve placed the order for State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka to appear sometime in January—and we’ll see. I’ll be taking two days off on my show: Sunday, December 25th and Sunday, January 1. Can you blame me?

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Deferential Bob of the Head, a Thoughtful, Halting Manner and a Winning Political Style is Born

After he fixed the faucet, Ronald Reagan returned to the table in the hotel room and we started talking. I asked him this provocative question, almost an insulting one—more of a statement than a question (a style I discourage on my radio shows but this was long before there was one). It went: “Governor, here we are in 1979 when the nation appears to be in solid disagreement with everything you stand for. It seems like the nation doesn’t want to see us involved in a continued internecine war with the USSR but wants d├ętente. It feels it’s been stung in Vietnam. Yet you seem to be talking about America winning the Cold War when so many believe it is a war that cannot be won but only settled.”

Continuing: “On domestic affairs, it seems like the nation has accepted a larger role for government in everything from the GI Bill to farm subsidies to student loans. Yet in listening to your radio programs, it seems you’re hearkening back to the old days of Calvin Coolidge, if I may say so. On social issues, the rise of feminism and so-called reproductive rights is embraced by many in the Congress including your prospective opponents. In short, you’re pretty much of a minority even in your own party. How are you going to win the nomination and even granting that you win it, how are you going to win the election against a Democratic party which seems to have subsidized the interest groups and is tough to counteract. Let me also say that I agree with you on almost everything—top to bottom—but for the life of me I can’t figure out how you’re going to win unless you change your stance, and that would cause cynicism.”

I don’t intend to go into the details of his answer because after years of familiarity with his views, you know the answers. But I want to leave this with you: he responded with as thorough a grasp of domestic policy as I’ve ever heard and, in fact, recited more statistics than I ever imagined. I was shaken and exultant because I had found my presidential candidate. We talked for a long time, he working the cops into the discussion so they felt they belonged. The one lesson I took with me, besides the fact that here was a very knowledgeable guy was significant. I asked him how he would win. He asked if I had ever seen him in “Knute Rockne: All American.” I had not once but many times on midnight re-runs.

He said: There was a scene in there that was ultimately cut but it was meant to capture the first time George Gipp met Rockne. I’m playing Gipp and throwing a baseball on the campus of Notre Dame. Rockne—played by Pat O’Brien (he was a big star, much bigger at the time than I or anyone else in the film)—sees me throwing the baseball. He strides over to me and has this line (O’Brien never flubbed a line): Hey, kid, if you can throw a football like you throw that baseball, you’ve got a job of my team. Are you game?” The cameramen said: it’s a wrap, Pat. Terrific. Then they set up for my response shot. My line was supposed to be: “Gee, Rock, I sure would like to try.” I did that line seventeen times with poor O’Brien having to stride over to me and toss out his line which was always perfect: Hey, kid, if you can throw a football like you throw that baseball you’ve got a job on my team, are you game?” And here I go with what I thought was a snappy way of delivering the line but the director would keep yelling “cut—give me some humility.” Give me some humility? What did that mean? I didn’t know how to deliver it.

Finally the director, Lloyd Bacon called us both over and said flatly, “Reagan we don’t have to have you in this picture at all. We can get somebody else. I couldn’t imagine what was wrong with the way I delivered the line. He kept saying, “it’s not right; it’s not right. I want some humility and you give me cocky kid.” Finally he said to O’Brien: Pat, you know what I want. Take him out and tell him, show him. And if that doesn’t work, tomorrow we’ll get somebody else.” And he stalked away.

So, Reagan said, we were in LA with a cardboard backdrop of Notre Dame on the set. So we went to a quiet bar with a glass mirror over the bar. Pat filled up his drink. I ordered a very light one and stayed with it. Pat said, Reagan, in order to play this scene well you’ve got to be a very humble kid. You understand the line: Gee, Rock, I sure would like to try? You deliver the line like a cocky kid. That’s not the approach. You got to show you’re humble.

Reagan said: I was desperate and said Pat, how do I do this?

O’Brien said: Remember this, the camera is seduce-able. The old line that the camera always tells the truth is goofy. The camera can be seduced, even by a cocky kid like you. The way to con the camera is to bob your head deferentially—like this [and he did it], sort of speak haltingly, maybe use the word “well” before you begin. This is how I would give the line. [I will always remember Reagan imitating Pat O’Brien teaching Reagan]. A lot of it is in the bobbing of the head which shows you’re humble. Now try it. Reagan said he did it fifteen or so times. O’Brien said: I think you’re getting on to it but it needs work. Tonight after dinner, you stand in front of the mirror and do it over and over. Tomorrow is a big day. You’ve got to do it right. Then O’Brien added these very important words: Incidentally, Reagan, that style of deferential appeal could really help you in this business. You’re somewhat of a cocky kid yourself. You might adopt it as a style. It could get you a lot of roles.

Reagan said he went home and followed O’Brien’s orders. The next day on the third take, it was a wrap and his role was safe. For all the anxiety about the scene, it was scrubbed in the final film cut and another scene written and filmed quickly without the humility. But it was clear that Reagan agreed with what O’Brien had said: incidentally, Reagan you’re a cocky kid and you’re more attractive when you seem humble. Reagan applied this to his persona. Actually it became so much a part of him, he said, that when he played his biggest film, “King’s Row” and he had the part of a cocky kid named Drake McHugh, he had to work himself over to get the part down and he sat down again with O’Brien to re-make himself as an upstart kid. “But don’t forget the old Reagan,” O’Brien said. “It’s your trademark.” (O’Brien’s own trademark, incidentally, was that of a very cocky Irishman, not unlike Jimmy Cagney’s).

Hearing him relate this story was so fascinating that I had forgotten my question, but he didn’t: how was he going to sell his ideas? He said that when he ran against Pat Brown for the governorship, he was given a sheaf of manuscripts full of statistics six inches high to master for a television debate. It was clear he was coming to this political game late and couldn’t pound it all into his head so he gave up. He called O’Brien on the phone and they got together. O’Brien said: Ron, you know what you believe should happen to state government, don’t you? Reagan said: yes. Do you remember what you learned years ago? You get humble. You bob your head deferentially and say this is what I want to do and I sure would like to try.

At the outset, I thought it was simplistic. But when I saw him later in a debate with John Anderson, a man who knew not only the fine points of legislation but the sub-paragraphs and phrases, I saw him bob his head deferentially and say what he wanted to accomplish and “I sure would like to try.” The audience understood that he wasn’t going to rival Anderson who served in the House for decades. They felt he was conservative—maybe too conservative, I don’t know—but maybe we’ll give “the kid” (Reagan was hardly youthful but appeared as such) “a chance.” When he debated Carter he used the technique, plus (bobbing the head to show humility) “there you go again.”

In essence, I recognized in the hotel room that afternoon that here was a genius, every bit as much a genius as the man he originally admired so much: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had learned his own persona differently: with uplifted cigarette-holder to display his jaunty confidence when the nation was hurting. Whenever I saw Reagan as president in a TV news conference being confronted by Sam Donaldson who would say: the government did this-and-this and you said this-and-this and how do you square these things, I’d see him bob his head and indicate virtually, he’d just like to try. Believe it or not this story isn’t finished yet. I just thought of something else: it has to go to a third chapter tomorrow. It’ll begin with his statement made when he was walking through O’Hare with me that he once lived as a child in Chicago. I thought: if this guy gets elected, he will have been the only president to have actually lived in Chicago. The only two other Illinoisans—Lincoln and Grant—didn’t (they weren’t actually Illinoisans by birth anyhow). Reagan was the only Illinoisan by birth. What transpired then, trying to find his original home may be fascinating—and tell you very much about how comfortable he was in his own skin.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Ronald Reagan and the Leaky Hotel Bathroom Sink: A Memoir

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The other night I was asked to introduce State Sen. Bill Brady at a Christmas party for his governor’s campaign contributors and well wishers—and I told this story: in much less time than I’m devoting now or else I would have been thrown out. (Incidentally, if your Republican candidate holds a party and wants an introducer, I’m available—also for wedding toasts and bar mitzvahs). But in an elongated fashion, this is the story I told and it will have to be divulged in two parts.

This political year with many Republicans divided about whom they will support for governor seems a lot like the year 1979 when state Republicans were split up seven different ways in their presidential choices. As the government relations officer at Quaker, I worked for a man who was for John Connally, the silver-haired ex-treasury secretary, ex-navy secretary and survivor of the JFK assassination who was just cleared of a corruption charge and was hailed as a champion of big, decisive yet conservative (on foreign-military policy) government and pro-choice on abortion. The entire Republican establishment was for Connally, headed by the state Republican chairman, Harold Byron Smith, Jr. who was both enormously influential money-raiser and political activist.

Most of the big money and the big political influence, with Gov. Jim Thompson staying neutral, was for Connally. Others, however, were for George H. W. Bush who like Connally touted his resume: former Congressman, former UN ambassador, former CIA director, former representative to China, former RNC chairman. Bush was a moderate and pro-choice. Others supported Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), the Senate minority leader who made his reputation at Watergate and had Illinois connections through his tie by marriage to Everett Dirksen’s daughter, Joy. He was pro-choice. Still others supported Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kansas), a moderate though discreetly and somewhat quietly pro-life. A group endorsed the most conservative of the lot, Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill), a member of Ways and Means, an author and according to the women, devilishly handsome, who was pro-life. Another endorsed Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.) of Rockford, chairman of the House Republican Conference, a decided liberal, author of a campaign finance reform law which was expected to drive all corruption from fund-raising—a pro-choicer.

That was a lot of people: Connally, Bush, Baker, Dole and Crane. And then we had some people for Reagan, headed by philanthropist Dan Terra, although Terra’s organization was, by no means, more than a few hundred names on a list. My boss, Bob Stuart, was for Connally but was the most tolerant chief executive I ever heard of before or since, in that if I wished to express my views in the papers or on the radio I could do so if I did not tie Quaker to it: a highly enlightened view that I cherished and still do. At any rate I hadn’t made up my own mind about who to back (not that my weight would add any importance). I knew Connally rather well, having hosted him at my Northwestern University seminar and spent many hours with him. I met Bush at a City Club event and heard lots from his campaign. I knew Baker, knew Dole, new Crane. Baker struck me as too flexible with malleable views. Crane was too rigid with a polarizing argumentative style. Anderson whom I knew the best and personally liked was the polar opposite to Crane, an oracular Old Testament prophet on liberal ideas. Dole was another ultra-flexible lawmaker with no set convictions who by his own words became a Republican because he lived in a Republican county and wanted to get elected its prosecutor. Reagan I had met once and while he was memorable at that time, we were surrounded by others and I couldn’t get over the view that he may have been an actor with a good script: possibly dumb, too dumb to be president.

It was about at that time that my phone rang with a call from John Sears. Sears and I were close friends, both having been booted out of our jobs in the Nixon administration at the same time and who toasted our good fortune occasionally in Washington. Sears was reputedly the world’s best delegate counter; he managed Nixon’s delegate count in 1968 and came very close as Reagan’s delegate counter to toppling President Ford in 1976.

Sears said that Reagan was coming to Chicago after having toured the south, would be coming into O’Hare alone and would have four hours or so to spare before he was to board a flight for Los Angeles. Reagan hated flying and needed the break, he said. And by the way, could you round up a group of business types for lunch as Reagan would be arriving about 11 a.m. at the O’Hare Hilton (we’ll pay the freight, he said) and see that he gets back on the plane for L.A. at 4:30? Sounded good to me so I called around only to be turned down by everybody of any financial worth in the Ilinois GOP. Dan Terra was Reagan’s fund-raiser and even he would be overseas. So in summary, I had nobody but myself. I called Sears and said that this might well be the first time I ever flopped on an assignment like this, but I had. Sears was not surprised, given the state of the Illinois GOP. He said, well what are you doing for lunch that day? I said nothing but Reagan wouldn’t want to eat with a punk like me. No, he said candidly, but Reagan’s got to eat with somebody and he’s an extrovert so you’re elected. Here’s what you do, he said. You hire a room at the O’Hare Hilton, order him a lean steak sandwich and take him over there. I asked: why a room for just us? He said there’s not going to be just you two, but two off-duty Chicago cops who volunteer to guard him. You don’t have to feed them but they’ll come along.

I said: why don’t we just go to the Seven Continents restaurant at O’Hare and save the trouble. I remember his reply: You don’t understand. This guy is the most recognizable of Americans, having been in the films beginning in the 1930s and on TV with “Death Valley Days” and having garnered media attention as governor. Why, he said, at Warner Brothers there was only one guy who got more fan mail than he and that was Errol Flynn. I was not impressed but said I’d do as he said so long as he paid the tab. So on a fall day in 1979 I went out to O’Hare, met the two off-duty cops and waited for the Allegheny airlines plane to come in. He was just about the last one down the ramp, carrying his own bags, looking very much as old as he was—69. I introduced myself and he put down his bags and said, “Mr. Ro—ser?” I asked him if he had had a good flight. He didn’t hear me very well and cocked his head to catch it. We chatted a bit and started off, me wondering what the two cops would do.

Very shortly, they were very busy. I met Reagan at Gate K8 and by the time we got to K5 we were having trouble getting through the crowd, with the cops gently leading the way. Somebody said, “that’s Reagan!” to which he bowed his head deferentially, smiled and we moved on. There was a ripple of shouts in the crowd, and he acknowledged it in the same way he did later with the press when he walked to the helicopter on the White House lawn. By the time we got to K1 we were pushing through the crowd. I was amazed. Some weeks before I had escorted Connally through O’Hare and while there was scattered recognition (being a survivor of the assassination at Dallas had some star-power), there was not the buoyant familiarity I saw here. As we went down the escalator there was a group at the topmost rail. . One guy shouted, “Hey, Ron! What was your name in `King’s Row’? I got a bet with this guy!” He heard it, looked up and smilingly said, “Drake McHugh!” The guy said to his chum, “See? I was right! You owe me $50!”

When we got to the room, the lunch was set. As we sat down I started to pop the questions about the country, foreign policy but he held up his hand and said, “Wait. Do you hear that?” I didn’t know what he was talking about. “The bathroom sink is running,” he said. “When I was an actor and traveling around I usually got the room with the running faucet.” The cops who evidently knew the drill said, watch this one. He got up, pealed off his suitcoat and opened up his suitcase, took out a cloth such as women wrap silverware in. Then he beckoned me to go with him. And so I tell my grandchildren, I entered the bathroom with the man who was to become the 40th president of the United States. He produced a wrench and expertly undid the faucet, tightened the screws and quickly replaced the faucet. Smiling he said to me: “There, that sonuvabitch won’t keep anybody else awake.”

That’s all I’ll write now. Tomorrow: I ask him how he plans to get elected when he’s the most conservative of Americans, espousing an ideology that was only duplicated by Phyllis Schlafly who could get elected to nothing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

One More McCarthy Tidbit: The Hair in LBJ’s Nostrils

When things got rough with the Eugene McCarthy marriage and friends of Gene and Abigail Quigley got together with Abigail and asked what was happening, she told them what I have mentioned in my earlier blog: that Gene was not serious about running for the presidency…that while others worked their hearts out he was drinking with Robert Lowell (my feeling is that he didn’t want to be president because he was beset with indecision). His frivolity came to head in 1964 when he was one of three prospective candidates for the vice presidential nomination. LBJ invited Gene and Abigail to dinner at the White House and, of course, she primped herself up to be perceived by LBJ and Lady Bird as a prospective First Lady. And she gave Gene hell about his sense of humor and whimsy.

They had a delightful dinner and afterward the President poured a drink for Gene in the corner of the room and they engaged in an animated hushed conversation while Abigail could hardly keep her eyes off them. Johnson did what he always did to people: give them what was known as the “Johnson Treatment” where he stood very,very close to the instructee and spoke in hushed tones. With McCarthy it was rather difficult because McCarthy was 6 foot 4 and Johnson slightly shorter, but Abigail saw that Johnson was standing on his tip-toes so as to have an edge on Gene, leaning over to him in grand senatorial style and whispering. All the time, Gene said nothing to him.

When they got in their car, Abigail could hardly contain herself. Tell me what he said, she enthused, and what you responded. I want the by-play.

McCarthy said: “Well, to tell you the truth I didn’t pay very close attention because I was amazed at the hair in his nostrils.”

That may well have done it. Later McCarthy told the same story to me and a friend who had breakfast with him. Abigail, to whom politics was very serious, could not get over the diffidence of her husband. But the answer is clear: Gene didn’t believe in very much, had no reservoir of certainty and used the hairy nostrils to avoid comment and to drive her nuts. Which he very nearly did.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Running for Office is Like Dope Exhibit A: Kathy Salvi

I often think of a guy who ran for secretary of state in the `60s, was flat broke and busted by the time he lost—heavily in debt and out of a job. He paid off his debt a little at a time, working at so-so legal jobs. In the Percy campaigns he served as driver for Percy’s mother who would play an accordion for senior citizens, responding to her Senator son’s cultivated eastern accent “mo-thah” (although he was raised in Rogers Park). He was not only a driver for the old lady but he was driven for the elusive goal of being a big shot. Anyhow, being both driver and driven paid off, some would say, by his being named a federal judge. I’ve known other people like him and I really doubt being gone so many nights to meetings pays off. Which leads me to ruminate about the epitaph on Hubert Humphrey’s tombstone: “Gone to another meeting.”

I was thinking about that epitaph when I lunched with Kathy Salvi the other day. She was my brightest student at Loyola, married Al and has six kids, some of them little. Here she is running for Congress. I told her as nicely as I could that I think she’s plumb loco: she shouldn’t short-change her kids. Would I have said this to her husband, Al? No because I am congenitally traditionalist: a mother should be home with her kids; gender roles are not switchable.

I knew she had it bad when Al ran for the U.S. Senate a few years ago. I had hoped that with a law degree, a flourishing legal business and civic and church activities she would slake off until at least the kids are raised: what’s wrong with a comely silver-haired candidate? Nope, long after a solid conservative jumps into the race she’s calling around purportedly to see if there’s any support for her husband. At the time there wasn’t much. Then she would ask: Any support for me? Take it from someone who worked for Congressmen and has known them for 50 years: it’s an awful job. Move your family to Washington and you see them for only a few nights a week then fly back to the district. Keep them in the district and when you’re back home you’re out on the hustings. It’s a rotten job for married men and fathers: a worse job for married women and mothers. I asked Melissa Bean, the incumbent Kathy is trying to dislodge, and a mother how she managed it. “Oh, fine!” she said with a distracted mother’s wistful tone. I gave up on her: she’s an addict.

Then there came a glimmering that Kathy could have it all. Jim Oberweis asked her to run with him for lieutenant governor. That means she can stay in the state and if elected would have a job that would be as easy or as time-consuming as she wanted to make it: the lieutenant governor doesn’t even preside over the Senate. She could take that job and make of it something of statewide significance. Nope: she turns it down. She’s one of a handful in the primary—including one who’s more adept on the issues than Kathy—and maybe with enough stamina she can get 45 percent of the vote so win the nomination. Her fellow church people are raising money for her, actively cultivating her addiction. It’s sick. Maybe the Haymarket Center people who treat all kinds of addictions ought to fashion a treatment for aspiring politicians.
It would start off with a talk on the Biblical injunction:”Put not your faith in princes.” Politicians being what they are, are bound to disappoint and political careers lead to frenetic aspirants acting like puppy dogs chasing their tails. No marriage can endure with the same solidity…and the key phrase is “with the same solidity”… with one partner—particularly the woman—burning with self-consuming ego. That’s egregiously politically incorrect but the truth. There’s a word for what her fellow church workers who have enlisted in this effort to elect her to Congress are: “enablers.”

Monday, December 12, 2005

Eugene McCarthy: 1916-2005: Rest, Perturbed Spirit

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The comic Richard Pryor and the former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy died the same day. It says something that the Sun-Times ran with Pryor’s “loss” on its front page, agonizing about how we can make it without Pryor who almost killed himself in a drug-inducted experiment with cocaine. The Trib and The New York Times played it right. Eugene McCarthy and I were friends for many years but I have to say that only on reflection after our last meeting did I thoroughly understand him: it took a long time. I knew him for roughly 50 years, when he was a tall, 6 foot 4-inch dark haired philosopher who taught sociology to the last time I met him a few years ago when he was a white-haired patriarch with the beginnings of Parkinson’s. In between he guest lectured for me at Wharton, Northwestern, Harvard, Loyola and the U of I as well as having made some Quaker Oats public policy forum appearances. Now here are some reflections:

He was born in a town I know well, Watkins, Minnesota, a small town in the heart of the most Germanic county of the U.S. in central Minnesota, to a German mother and an Irish father (who farmed). Gene went to neighboring St. John’s University and scored the highest all-time academic record—all As. He went into the Benedictine order after graduation and stayed nine months but the time spent there formed him. When he went in he was familiar with the great philosophers of the church: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, Gerald Vann, Kqarl Adam, Romano Guardini, Christopher Dawson, Mauriac and Maritain. When he left, he got a graduate degree at the U of M in sociology, meeting and marrying Abigail Quigley. Abigail was at least as bright as Gene but was from the Wabasha, Minnesota Quigleys., Irish Democrats to the core. The Quigleys were not unlike the Daleys. Needless to say that was not Gene’s style.

He was undergoing a St. John’s idealism and for a time the two of them rented a farm where he worked (he was a good farmer) and read, discussing theology with her. She quickly said the hell with that, she wanted something more—and ultimately so did he. First he taught at St. John’s where I got to know him, then they moved to St. Paul where both of them became college professors, held up as models by the liturgical reformers as the kind of married couple cognizant with the church’s social doctrines whom we should imitate. They were living in St. Paul when Gene’s professor buddies introduced him to Hubert Humphrey who was building a strong Democratic-Farmer-Labor party out of a general chaos: there were Democrats, old Farmer-Laborites and independents. Humphrey gave it some discipline and recruited Gene to run for Congress in St. Paul in what was regarded as a kind of lost cause. Lost cause because the incumbent, Ed Devitt, was a congressman rather like the man Gene was perceived of as being: a graduate of St. John’s. In fact the Abbot of St. John’s, Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, once told me he was mad at Gene for running against a Johnny. Why isn’t there another district he can find, he asked. Ed Devitt was conscious of the social teachings of the church and just happened to be a Republican.

Gene’s first campaign set the standard. If you were more observant than I was at the time, you noticed a veneer of intellectuality and snobbery with soft-stated, barbed ridicule. Later he would say of George Romney who accused the LBJ people of brain washing him on Vietnam, “in Romney’s case only a light rinse would do.” Funny, isn’t it? But Gene never spoke self-deprecatingly of himself as Adlai Stevenson and JFK would do: it was always cutting down the other guy. He cut down Ed Devitt and served for 12 years in Congress. He got the reputation of being a coaster, not a hard worker, of being very pro-business in his work on Ways and Means and a sophisticate who would take a copy of Yeats’ poetry to committee sessions because he was bored. Yet his mind was such that he absorbed the tax stuff almost as if by osmosis while he committed Yeats to total memory. (I’ve sat by his side when he recited Yeats for at least two hours to a rapt audience). I have no doubt that he was more than an intellectual who could ponder Aquinas, Henry George, Freud and Marx offhandedly. He was far deeper than Humphrey who had to work hard to master issues. McCarthy was the nearest person I’ve ever met to being a genius.

As Longfellow once wrote, “you know the rest in the books you have read.” You know—or I think you know—that McCarthy became organized labor’s favorite Congressman. He moved to the
Senate in 1958, knocking off a liberal Republican whose tenure was ripe. In the Senate he became not just close to LBJ, the majority leader, but his confidante. He distanced himself from JFK because he was envious: he said he was twice as smart and twice as Catholic as JFK and was probably right. Then JFK was elected president with LBJ, then the assassination and LBJ became president. McCarthy fancied that he would run with LBJ in 1964 to be the Catholic heir to the presidency. Abigail fancied this, too. She was a true political wife.

But LBJ had other ideas and listed quite a few possible candidates for vice president including Humphrey, McCarthy, Tom Dodd and a number of others. Then it boiled down to Humphrey and McCarthy. McCarthy decided that he was being toyed with as a foil with Humphrey to get the laurels so he bowed out and kept a sublimated hate for LBJ in his heart. The hate boiled over concerning Vietnam—but I don’t think it would have been there had not McCarthy felt betrayed by LBJ.

People don’t recognize that not only didn’t McCarthy win in New Hampshire, he lost to LBJ on a write-in since LBJ hadn’t announced yet. But the media picked up his loss as a moral victory because just like now, they despised the war. During that time I was rather close to McCarthy since we had gone to the same school (me twelve years after he) and knew the same people. It was there that I would marvel at his quotesmanship. Not that the quotes weren’t accurate but I wondered what they meant. They meant that for all his gifts, Gene McCarthy had turned away from philosophical certitude and was running to get-even, not necessarily to get elected president or to lead the nation to a program of his own.

There was one favorite quote he used when he spoke to the kids which stunned me. He would quote Plutarch: “They are wrong who think politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign—something to be done with some particular end in view.” Repeat that to yourself as I did. What does it mean? It meant that McCarthy was telling us he was uncertain, a nihilist. The more I questioned him through the years the more I became convinced that for all his learning, he was a skeptic, that he was not far from believing like the Buddhists who hold the existence is not real but mere illusion with truth held as relative; maybe like Nietzsche that truth is a mere expedient of language, truth is nothing more than a cultural necessity.

That view turned his wife against him, because Abigail thought, particularly when Bobby Kennedy was killed, that her husband could become president. But then Gene evaporated, went to St. John’s and took a long retreat while she chafed and others wondered what was going on. Consider that Plutarch quote: “They are wrong who think politics is like an ocean voyage or military campaign—something to be done with some particular end in view.” Do you know any other politician who would quote this: LBJ, JFK, Nixon, Reagan, Humphrey. They knew what they wanted to accomplish, or at least were confident they did. Not Gene. Much deeper than they, he was overcome with skepticism and as an intellectual he was far happier in the company of his buddy Robert Lowell, the poet, than politicians.

But McCarthy had certitude about short-range things: getting even. He got even with LBJ by destroying his presidency. And he got even with Humphrey whom he never forgave for getting the vice presidency McCarthy wanted—got even by holding off his endorsement until the very last hours of the presidential campaign against Nixon where the endorsement would mean very little.

Abigail bailed out, wrote her book “Private Faces, Public Places” which is an outstanding read, by the way. Gene knew he was finished in the Senate in 1970 with Democrats enraged at his failure to endorse Humphrey in time. They never divorced but Abigail had a final sentence in her book that tells a lot: It says Gene had discovered that he could not be true to anything including marriage. That really isn’t a charge of infidelity; it’s a charge against nihilism and relativism. McCarthy went on from there to run for the presidency a number of times, tried to broker the election of Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter which if Dick Ogilvie had been the sagacious Ford chairman he was reputed to be just possibly could have happened. McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan, endorsed the Star Wars concept.

The disease of the West is relativism. Skepticism of absolute truth vitiates one in any endeavor, especially politics. One cannot perform in business without believing strongly in your product and your corporation; one certainly cannot perform in politics without believing strongly in your candidacy. And one cannot be a religionist without believing in absolute truth and certainty. When you begin to believe that one religion cannot be the bearer of truth, you believe all religions are equal, that all views have some shading or gradation and that truth is unknowable. Gene McCarthy the intellectual was not alone. Thomas Merton who left a world of academia for a Trappist monastery came to the conclusion that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” That’s why when I say Gene McCarthy was the most intellectual man I had met—and that he was a good Buddhist—I’m greeted by lots of head scratching. But it’s true.

The Final List: I Read More than I Thought

These should clean up the list of books I read in 2005 with capsule reviews:

“The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” by Ron Chernow [Grove: 1990] which I was led to because I became a devotee of Chernow’s biographical talents when I read his “Alexander Hamilton” in 2004. He has the uncanny knack of bringing alive aristocrats (Hamilton, J. P. Morgan, Robert Moses) who have defied earlier definition. It’s a primer on finance in the 19th to 20th centuries. Vital read.

“Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America” by Newt Gingrich [Regnery: 2005]. Newt’s bid to keep alive available for the 2008 presidency. He’s the same back-bencher I knew when he was plotting the revolution—only he couldn’t master himself. Distinctive book in that here for the first time he embraces social conservatism with the startling but apt recommendation that if the presidency can’t—or won’t—change the courts, the House can do it by cutting the appropriations. Vital read.

“The Bushes” by Peter and Rochelle Schweitzer [Doubleday: 2004]. Good, objective review of the dynastic family written by a couple who plainly voted for George W. but knows his failings. Read.

“The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty” by Kitty Kelley [Doubleday: 2004]. Supposed tell-all book, a stereotypical hatchet-job by a cat who interviewed everybody—including Neil Bush’s ex-wife—who wanted to cut up the family. It would have been good if the documentation were not full of anonymous sources. I knew Kitty Kelley when she was an assistant press secretary to Eugene McCarthy: then a quiet mouse, now a tiger and vicious assassin. Skip.

“Where the Right Went Wrong” by Pat Buchanan [St. Martin’s Press: 2005]. Great read but as of a few years ago—very few, actually—I fell out of bed with the paleos. I got the neo-con religion late and believe Pat’s protectionism, anti-immigration and Fortress America concepts supply red meat but would be disastrous. He’s a magnificent polemicist, however, with a prose style very nearly the equal of H. L. Mencken. Vital read to read the prose laureate of the paleos. Remember, Pat has left the Republican party and ran the worst independent campaign possible to imagine in 2000. Vital read.

“Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible As the First Christians Did” by Mark Shea [Basilica: 1999] is an intriguing book and yet “senses” is the right word: examining the Bible from four senses: literal, allegorical, moral and analogical. A thrilling book of insights by a humorist with a style at least as good as Peter Kreeft’s. Vital read.

“By What Authority? An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition” by Mark Shea [Our Sunday Visitor: 1996] by the Catholic apologist and tireless blogger who was referred to me by my friend Elias Crim. Vital read.