Friday, May 25, 2007

Flashback: The Meeting with Byrne and Both of Us Change Our Point of View.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Naturally I brought my new, best old friend Claude Murphy (whom I didn’t realize was so tight with Mayor Jane Byrne) to the meeting in her office on the 5th floor of City Hall. When we walked in, she was at her desk—a tiny, taut woman—talking in no-nonsense style to a 6 foot 4 inch Chicago policeman. Seeing us, she doused a cigarette in an ash tray. I had to step aside as she hugged Claude. “Hi, Claude!” she said. “Who did you bring?” “Oh somthin’ the cat drug in,” he said. Laughs all around.

After we sat down, she lighted a new cigarette, inhaled deeply and said: “Your City Club has been very unfair to me, Tom, saying that I was trying to short-circuit the open bid process on the South Loop. Just today I signed an executive order that open bidding shall begin.”

Wonderful, I said. Now there’s no reason for us to be hostile to each other.

“Claude has been trying to get you to call me for quite some time,” she said, “haven’t you, Claude?”

He chuckled and in his best black ghetto accent (entirely put on) said, “wal, ah was just tryin’ to wait foh de raht time.”

Well, I said, all’s well that ends well, I always say.

She said, “so do I. I understand the City Club is looking for an honoree.”

Yes, I said, and now that you have embraced open bidding on the South Loop there is no reason it shouldn’t be you.”

“What do you think, Claude?” she said. “Do you see any reason why not?”

“No,” he said, “ah t’ink the time’s raht and ah say dat as a frien’ o yors and a frien’ of de Club.”

She said, “when were you thinking of holding this testimonial?”

The sooner the better for the Club’s standpoint, I said.

“Well,” she said inhaling deeply, “do you think people will say you sold out?”

No. Not sold out. Rented out. But seriously, if you and the Club are together on the open bidding, it’s a win-win for both of us.

“O.k..” She looked at her schedule. As she turned the pages and flicked her cigarette ash, I decided that there is a God and he is a little elderly black man with a white fringe of hair, a 140 kilowatt smile who, for some reason—possibly patronizing—has improvised a poor-boy ghetto southern accent.

“O.k.,” she said. “Well, if that’s all--.”

I said: One thing, Mayor. Every dinner has to have a chairman in charge of ticket sales who is close to the honoree. It helps people to understand that when they buy tables through this person, their purchase will be known to the honoree.

“O.k,” she said. “Your chairman is Ron Orner.”


“Ron Orner. He’s a labor lawyer and friend of ours, isn’t he, Claude?.”

“Yas indee’.”

“Here, this is his phone number.”

Thank you very much Mayor. We’ll see you on the big date if not before.

“If you have trouble or any questions get Claude. He knows how to reach me.”

As we walked out, I said: Claude, you and I are going to be very tight. You can hang around my office all day and all night if you want to.

“Not fer awhile. I gotta go outta town.”

O.k., Claude. But don’t be a stranger.


We hired the grand ballroom of the Hilton & Towers (now the Chicago Hilton). I called Ron Orner a dozen times; finally got through. He was very uncommunicative. So I went over to his office. Very quiet office, walnut paneled on LaSalle Street. Noiseless typewriters, prim, conservatively dressed women clericals. Thin young men studying law books in the library.

“Wh-a-a?” he said. “She said that? I never ran a dinner in my life.”

You don’t have to run it, Mr. Orner. Just sell tables.

“I never sold a table or a ticket to a fund-raiser in my life.”

You don’t have the Mayor’s list?

“The Mayor’s what?”

This worries me.

Days went by and Orner was of no help; not only was he of no help, he was hostile to the event. I tried to get hold of Claude; no answer. I scouted around the South Side for his friends. Our news release went out and got a big bang: Mayor Agrees with City Club on Open Bids on North Loop; Will be Honored at Historic Fest.

Where was Claude? No one knew where he was. I tried to call the Mayor. A stone wall. Seven days before the event—exactly one week to go—and when I finally reached Orner he told me he hadn’t made a sale.

“Of course I haven’t,” he said. “I got a law practice to take care of. You better scrub this event. The little lady rolled you.”

But we had signed an expensive contract with the hotel for filet mignon, a band, a group of serenading violinists, placemat gifts. Now we weren’t just broke we were in hock up to our eyeballs.

Another headline: City Club to Honor Byrne with Big Gala.

Then in my door he comes. “Hah, buddy.”

Claude, Claude. We’re in deep [scatological word for “trouble”].

“Aw yeah?”

Yeah. Ron Orner has had no instructions, no list, hasn’t sold a ticket much less a table. I can’t get the mayor to return my call. One week to go. A huge empty cavern with table cloths, white linen napkins, a band, waiters and no guests. The Mayor arrives and speaks to an empty hall with her echo reverberating. A major news story. Major embarrassment for her, for the City Club. I’m a bum. A disgrace. Outside of that, things are going well, Claude.

He walked over to the phone on my desk.

“Do ah dial nine?”

Yes. Please.

He dialed, cradled the receiver on his shoulder and talked so quietly I couldn’t hear.

He hung up.

“Everythin’s all right buddy. We gotta go see her.”

We did. Another embrace.

“Mayah,” said Claude. “As ah says on the phone, we gotta kind of embarrassment.”

“Yeah,” she said. “You told me. Get over to Orner’s office right now. He’s waiting for you.”

I asked: Do you have a list for him to call?’

“Don’t worry about that. Get over to his office right away.”


When Claude and I got to Orner’s office the scene was wildly different. Phones were ringing; the women clericals were scribbling messages; messenger boys were coming in one door carrying envelopes, waiting impatiently to be waited on. The thin young men looked harried, on their phones. Inside his paneled office, Orner was frazzled. His coat was off, tie askew and on the phone.

“Suddenly,” he said to me, “the whole world comes crashing down on me. We have to hire temps to take the calls. Marilyn! Marilyn! She’s my assistant. How many tables have we sold?”

She shouted: “I can’t see you now. I’m on the phone! How many tables—fifty-two in the last 45 minutes! And more coming in!”

He said: “They’re all her friends and contributors. The plumbers union just called me. They want 10 tables up in front where she can see them. How many tables does the place hold, for God’s sake?”

Marilyn popped her head in the door, “The electrical union wants four tables up front. I said they could have them. Is that okay?

Orner said: “I was planning to go out to dinner with my wife but not now. We all have to work. Can you get me a map or something of the grand ballroom? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m saying yes to front tables. I think we got so many tables now we’re going to end up in the hall! I wasn’t even planning to go! Somebody put out the word to every special interest in the city—law firms, unions, United Airlines, American Airlines. Black civic organizations; black churches. Hispanics by the carloads.”

Claude said, “Ron, we gotta go. Don’ wanna bother you now; you’re too busy. But I gotta tell you, you’re the bes’ civic fund-raiser an’ dinner chairman in the history of Chicago!”

One thing more, I said. I want a table for Quaker Oats, Ron. Up front. Okay?

“You’re going to leave us here with this mess, huh?” said Orner bitterly.

No, I said. We gave you a winner. You’re on the way to being the best civic dinner chairman in Chicago history.

“How did I get into this?” he bleated.

Easy, I said. The little lady rolled you.