Thursday, May 10, 2007

Personal Aside: How the Illinois Supreme Court Blocked a Gubernatorial Recount and Saved Big Jim’s Neck


Big Jim’s Neck.

I have long wondered why the state of Illinois is so bereft of a good history book. My old once adopted state of Minnesota has a number of volumes cataloging its history, its governors and its characters. Illinois seems to depend largely on one sadly out of date book by the late Robert Howard called Illinois and a pop book which was begun by Howard and continued by Peggy Boyer Long and Mike Lawrence which carries the improbable and awkward title The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent Men. (Were they?). Ms. Long is the editor of “Illinois Issues,” a magazine published by The Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Springfield and Mike Lawrence is famous as the phenomenal press secretary to Governor Jim Edgar who became the conscience of the administration and spoke out at great length on ethical challenges. Lawrence is an excellent newsman and former Springfield bureau chief for the “Sun-Times.” I know him well and admire him.

Notwithstanding that, if there is such a thing as bowdlerizing state history these days, it occurs in Mostly Good and Competent Men. Especially in the chapter about Big Jim Thompson. Thompson, we are told by the authors, won reelection in 1982 over Adlai E. Stevenson III by a very narrow margin—5,074 votes out of 3.6 million—because Stevenson was a lackluster campaigner. Stevenson, unlike his father, says the book was a “dull speaker and had negative charisma.” But it doesn’t answer why the race became so close when Thompson was acknowledged as an excellent campaigner. The reason it became so close…as certainly Mike Lawrence above all must know…is that Big Jim had changed course long about 1978, to move from the status of reformer to big spending pol and the public’s view of him came into sharper focus in 1982.

Pompous, a blowhard, a living miracle with no guts or spine, bereft of philosophy, I am tempted to say Thompson was running out of gas but that’s not so. He was and is a gas-bag. Lawrence-Long say that Thompson ran as “the taxpayer’s friend” that year. Are they referring to that bogus “Thompson Proposition”—as advisory vote thought up by Doug Bailey, that was a hoax on the voters and didn’t hold up…to the extent that even ex-governor Richard Ogilvie condemned the tactic?

Thompson the taxpayers’ friend? In fact, Stevenson campaigned against the excesses in spending and political insincerity of Thompson and may well have made the case. What the book fails to mention is that the spread started at 9,401 votes and was narrowed to 5,000 votes when Stevenson appealed to the state Supreme Court to allow a recount. But the state Supreme Court blocked a recount by vote of 5 to 4.

That fifth vote against the recount came from Democrat Seymour Simon. Strange that a Chicago Democrat, former 40th ward alderman, former Democratic chairman of the Cook county board, would vote against the Democratic nominee who was ready to display all kinds of voting irregularities. Not that Simon should follow knee-jerk what a fellow Democrat wanted…it wouldn’t be judicial and we all know how he respected the law…but it is passing strange that he voted to block a recount which guaranteed a Republican governor’s reelection, is it not? It is passing strange that someone enamored of civil liberties to the extent that he wanted to overrule the death penalty also wanted to shut down a recount when the outcome was not clear, isn’t it?

The fact that as U. S. Senator, Adlai Stevenson had refused to nominate Seymour Simon as a federal judge wouldn’t have had anything to do with it…would it? The fact that Simon refused to disqualify himself for conflict of interest was just an oversight…wasn’t it? The fact that Big Jim had already offered Seymour Simon’s son, John, a job wouldn’t have had anything to do with it…would it? The fact that Big Jim was the chief mourner at Seymour Simon’s funeral is just…well…evidence of Big Jim’s big heart, wasn’t it?

History can and has been bowdlerized. We know that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was the Kennedys court record falsifier and poet. We know that David Halberstam decided that the Vietnam War was lost and set about justifying his amateur conclusion. Has history been either re-written or suppressed in Illinois? I can’t believe it. But all the same, it is passing strange that not only is the current media adept at bowdlerizing but what passes for historians around here seem to do the same. Not only has much of Illinois’ news have been slanted, but its history-writing has evidently been as well.

By the way, my friend Dan Kelley points out an error I had in my last piece about Thompson. He may have built the godawful fey, Helmut Jahn Taj Mahal out of colored glass that was the new state office building but he didn’t name it after himself. It was named the James R. Thompson building by his successor Jim Edgar who wanted to be sure that his own name wasn’t connected with it. I stand corrected.


  1. During the 1982 campaign I crafted a speech which asked whether Jim Thompson or Adlai Stevenson was more likely to raise the state income tax.

    You can imagine the answer given by the GOP audiences.

    I remember at the DuPage County Republican Golf Day, Jim came down the stairs from the stage and said, "Give the income tax speech, Cal."

    I kept in close touch with the Budget Bureau up to the last month. Through September tax receipts were holding up.

    The bottom apparently fell out in October.

    Did Thompson know of the change in tax fortunes?

    I'd love to know, because it would give us a clue as to whether he was telling the truth before the election.

    It is plausible that he was so busy during the last month of the 1982 campaign that he was not briefed on economic conditions.

    What is clear is that he decided to support an income tax hike shortly after the election.