Thursday, December 1, 2005

George Tagge Lives!: Return to Those Thrilling Days of Partisan Press Yesteryear with The Sun-Times

In addition to covering what is purported to be the “straight” news for her newspaper, Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet appears on the editorial page today, telling us that President Bush’s assumptions cannot be trusted since many of his earlier assumptions on Iraq have proved wrong. This is a heartening return to the days of yore when newspaper reporters invaded other precincts to influence public opinion. And as such, the Sun-Times is leading the way to a return of the good old days such as were driven by George Tagge, Colonel McCormick’s political man at the Tribune.

Tagge, who carried the title political reporter, deserves far more credit than he was given as a mere byline reporter. He met with Republican leaders and told them what candidates would and would not do well in the media, what candidates stood a chance of being endorsed by the Trib and information favored candidates could use in their campaigns. Tagge was, in a very real sense, his paper’s Vice President-Government Relations. He proved his worth by actively lobbying for McCormick Place in the legislature which quickly earned the nick-name Tagge’s Temple. That was the tag-end (no pun intended) of the Golden Age of newspapering which I mourn and which I am thrilled to welcome as returning in the person of Ms. Sweet. Nor am I writing this cynically: there is a great deal that is refreshing about a partisan newspaper whose Washington editor tells us our president cannot be trusted; it will lead to other newspapers telling us in news reporting and editorial page appearances that the president can too be trusted.

To say this president can’t be trusted is to rank him in wartime with Abraham Lincoln who campaigned as a moderate on slavery then precipitated war by reinforcing Fort Sumter and calling up 75,000 volunteers which led to the bloodiest war in our history. He failed repeatedly until 1864 to find a general who could carry the war to a brisk conclusion and if Ms. Sweet were reporting from the battlefields of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg she would, in fact, see her dispatches on the editorial page as she does today. (As a matter of fact, she works for a paper that has a sketchy antecedent to the old Chicago Times which bitterly opposed Lincoln and was called by enemies the Copperhead journal).

She would indeed have a field day, reporting that grassroots minorities literally don’t support the Civil War, commenting on the decision by the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaw-Creeks and Seminoles which on Oct. 28,1861 issued a declaration supporting the Confederacy. “Disclaiming any intention to invade the Northern States, they [Southerners] sought only to repel the invaders from their own soil and to secure the right of governing themselves…But, in the Northern States, the Cherokee people see with alarm a violated Constitution, all civil liberty put in peril, and all rules of civilized warfare and the dictates of common humanity and decency unhesitatingly disregarded.” As the late Hubert Humphrey would say, if only white people could write like that.

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Tagge, incidentally, was beloved by his employers but not necessarily his newsroom colleagues. A rather cold, forbidding man whom I knew only in his later years, he seemed to have only one soft side: the gushy love he would give his plump, overfed canary in his apartment. It was said that when he got home from work, Tagge would tenderly take the canary out of his cage, allow it to perch on his finger and talk soothingly to it while the bird would cock its head and tweet-tweet back to him. Tagge once mentioned the canary at work which, it turned out, was a mistake.

One night when Tagge and his wife went to a movie, they returned to find their apartment broken into. No money or jewelry were taken but the cage door was ajar and the canary was missing. Which indicated that it was definitely an inside job. The cage was dusted for fingerprints but none were uncovered. After that episode, Tagge became visibly less friendly at work and even more conservative in his general outlook.

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