Tuesday, May 23, 2006

John Kass: Who Makes the Trib Worthwhile.

In my last pass at describing the tedious, ungodly dull, timid and cautiously tentative Tribune, I dealt with the editorial policy and mainly the editorial page Op Eds…with some scattered general interest columnists… deducing that the marketing rationale for the newspaper is that you can have it all by (a) endorsing Republican candidates for major office and (b) balancing that with a flurry of liberal Op Eds and liberal columnists while (c) hiring a news staff both here and in Washington that is predictably liberal. Result: whatever remains of its conservative base is not being nourished—the paper’s obvious hope being that it will die off or cling to the hoary tradition the Colonel left behind. They are so hopelessly mired in political correctness that they don’t realize (a) that fusion between the political left, the libertarian right and the paleo-conservatives are even making the old Tribune philosophy look more prescient than ever and (b) conservatives of all stripes in Illinois are bereft without a home which is gradually being subsumed by WLS, WIND and smaller talk radio stations. There just isn’t much of a market for yet another mushy socially liberal-economically conservative hybrid.

Now we get to the one good thing it has going for it. While not specifically an editorialist nor commentator on national or international issues but the superb ex-City Hall reporter he was, John Kass nevertheless makes the experience of reading the Trib, despite all the graphics one of unutterable tedium on most days, all worthwhile. To those who say he is not a successor to Mike Royko, let it be said of it that it is true which is to Kass’s credit. Royko’s gaze was filtered through a cracked barroom shot glass darkly from which he viewed the world: it was entertaining but not insightful, just inciteful. That he was a malignantly maimed warrior made his oft-cockeyed views laughable but after you read Dick Ciccone’s adulatory but nonetheless brutally honest biographical portrait of him, you re-read him less and less. The last days of Royko were particularly sad: run-ins with cops where scatological language was used, slurs against certain ethnics and gays etc.

While sentimentalists will hate this, Royko will never live beyond the immediate past: not a chance of being numbered among Chicago’s greatest columnists: Finley Peter Dunne’s creature Martin Dooley the saloon keeper on Archer who enlivened the Evening Post and all literature, prompting the elitist 92-year-old Jacques Barzun to say “it is a disgrace to American scholarship not to have elevated [Dunne] to a peerage equal with Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce”; or even with Howard Vincent O’Brien, Robert Casey, Lloyd Lewis, John C. Carmichael and Sydney J. Harris of the Daily News, Warren Brown of the American and Bill Gleason of the Sun-Times. He will be remembered largely for only one truly great column, written in Christmas season about one Mary and Joseph, the couple who hit Chicago without hotel reservations or much money and couldn’t find lodging. That column told us what Royko had within himself at one time to produce but which was squandered away for what reason no one knows.

Kass is far different. His background as, among other things, a commercial butcher and sailor on commercial vessels gives him an unique perspective with which to write. He was, of course, the finest City Hall journalist the Trib ever had—and his insights into the corruption under Richard M. Daley is perspicacious and brave. But unlike Royko, he is no nihilist. He knows there is certainty and that in a world where there are some absolutes, truth is like a series of perpetual oscillations which we glimpse at progressive stages if we live the virtuous life. No other columnist has this depth nor, in my memory, has published book lists of classics for young people to read. All of these things, Kass obfuscates in blue collar lingo but all the while ties up traditional philosophy akin the Greeks in a wondrously easily read commentaries which rather mislead you to think he is a very average bloke—which, I assure you, he is not.

John Kass who added an all-descriptive word to characterize the bipartisan corruption here (the combine) is so powerful a subliminal force in contemporary journalism—without crusading or outwardly railing with outraged superficial morality—that he may well produce a reaction against the hideously corrupt forces that stultify this city’s political culture…far more than perhaps prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. There is a certain balance that must be struck between a city run almost entirely on a civil service footing (an aspiration that vague dreamers like former Alderman Dick Simpson envision without considering what the United States Postal Service has become and how that system could bring a halt to public services) and a city run on a very modest diet of politically motivated managers who are hired to carry out tasks a mayor has pledged to do…and also this necessitates political dickering under the ancient rubric that when one purifies the pond the lilies die (a view Kass understands as does no one else). Yet the huge appointment list must be drastically pruned. The president of the United States gets about 1,800 posts with which to influence the direction of the nation: Mayor Daley has about 40,000 and much more when you add the numbers in county government under control of his brother, John. Chicagoans tend to believe that because the city is beautiful, it cannot have been made so without the corruption Daley has brought: sort of a payment for it all. That is completely untrue and unwarranted as only Kass knows and tells.

With these virtues, it follows that John Kass is a conservative and by lucking into him and making him their Page 2 commentator, the Tribune which is as agnostic to good or bad journalism as its marketing department allows it to be, is performing a distinct service. It is no great shakes to write comic columns about corruption here: Ring Lardner, Westbrook Pegler, Edwin Lahey and a number of other clever writers went on to higher posts doing it. It is great shakes to zero in on the corruption with a vigor that bespeaks not cynicism but a life of virtue. To do that takes a serious writer and while John Kass can spin enjoyable yarns with the best of them, he is a very serious, integrity-filled correspondent. This somebody at the Trib understands which means that there is some hope at least for a newspaper which once billed itself the world’s greatest to become at least the city’s better one.


  1. Only a very few will be long remembered. Like an eraser, time removes the rest of us from the memory of the public. Once we exit the stage where we played our roles, we receive our final review from the one Critic whose views alone matter in the end.

  2. I agree that Kass's column is one of the few worth reading in the Tribune. However my personal experience with him was not good from a journalistic standpoint. In the late 70s and 80s I was a local union official with the steelworkers union in southeast Chicago. In the early 80s, (I don't remember the exact date -- it has been awhile), an employee of the old Republic Steel mill went into the plant and killed a couple co-workers before committing suicide. Kass came into my office and I gave him some information on the killer, (off-the-record and confidentially), and he wrote a story about it for the Daily Calumet where he worked at the time. Due to union politics the local union president who was a Vrdolyak ally pressured Kass to tell him who gave the information. Kass apparently thought keeping good with the neighborhood Vrdolyak people was more important that keeping sources confidential. He gave up the information and I got a lot of grief in my life for a period of time. I have never trusted a reporter since then.

  3. Maybe I have it wrong, but didn't Royko use "the blonde" in his columns the same way Kass uses "the Swede"? Was "the blonde" Royko's spouse; "the Swede", Kass's assistant?

    I usually read and enjoyed Royko's work as I now do Kass's, but the use of these devices generally signaled a weak column for both.

  4. Kass certainly writes some good stuff.

    But "The Combine" certainly has a broad definition. Who isn't in "The Combine"? Makes his conspiracy story rather large when anyone who has done business with anyone else is now in "The Combine". Not that he is wrong, but it gets to be tautological after a while.