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Aliens in Our Midst

Why columnists need to keep a safe distance from their fans

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Last month I fretted about "celebrity journalists" turned into "commodities" doing "star turns." That doesn't sound like a good thing—but what exactly was I talking about? What I had in mind was the columnist, and the most insidious of all threats to his or her individualism and self-worth: fans.

I was thinking of the difficult occasions when a writer who suspects no one reads him is approached by a stranger—at a wedding reception, let's say, for that's a time when emotions well up—who tells him different. I read you every week, says this stranger, now apparently your new best friend, and boy, does this city need you! You're the only one out there telling the truth about—about whatever the hell it is he thinks you're telling the truth about. He glows. He summons his wife and makes introductions. He's practically bouncing up and down on his toes.

And what are you thinking? OK, you're thinking, It's about time! But you're also thinking, I'm his favorite dog and pony show. So long as I keep doing the same couple of tricks he'll love me forever. But what about my soul?

What your fans want from you is the same thing that, to be honest, your paper wants from you. And this is for you to remain predictably unpredictable. Surprise and delight us every day with the ways you smite your enemies, say your fans, but don't change enemies! Remember, we hate them too.

There are two ways to respond to these fans. The bad way is to keep doing the tricks that delight them. The not-quite-as-bad way is to betray them. Remember, their approval is not what you're about. Far more rewarding than the praise of a faithful reader is the penetrating critique of a shrewd and constructive opponent. For then you can tell yourself, I've done my job! A dialogue has commenced and wisdom is on the march.

This happens once every two or three careers.

Mark Brown of the Sun-Times wrote a recent column recalling his painful years as a high school loser. This column prompted me to reflect that, yes, even columnists have issues. Alienation issues, which a column either introduces or compounds. Your paper might promote you as the voice of the people, but you are not. You are someone detached and floating above, watching the world and its people and finding them endlessly curious. Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch grew up in Roseland reading Royko. (McClellan's a Fenger High product.) "He influenced how I thought about a lot of things," McClellan tells me. "He was so coolly cynical."

I once wrote a poem that tried to force a connection between my life as a journalist and my roots as a Swiss.

These are the stock of Europe's heart,

Surrounded by passions, yet full apart.

Deficient in song and dance and art,

But Europe's analyst . . .

The columnist with explicit credentials as an outsider has a leg up. Periodically, Mark Brown, who grew up outside Peoria, reminds his readers that he's a Saint Louis Cardinals fan. Periodically, McClellan reminds his readers that he's a Cubs fan. (He's a south-sider, but his father, a city electrician, hated the Comiskeys.) I asked each of them about this.

Brown sounded uneasy with the situation. "I don't really like removing myself from the readers in that way, but it's the truth, so I try to work with it," he said, "and it sure beats the hell out of being a Cubs fan." Indeed it does, I replied, one Cardinals fan to another.

McClellan said I was asking about something he'd never "given much deep thought to—not that deep thought is a big part of my game. It isn't." But, yes, "as far as working for me, I suppose it does. A lot of the stuff I write goes against the grain. That's probably the norm for columnists."

McClellan went on, "Actually, I find that being a Cubs fan in Saint Louis is almost like being the alcoholic uncle at a family reunion—most people tolerate me, some are even amused. I suspect it might be different if the Cubs were more successful. People here love the Cardinals, and if the Cubs were constantly beating them, the fans here would be less tolerant of me, I think. So when I openly rooted for Sosa against McGwire [in the home run race of '98], it was OK because McGwire won. And I don't like La Russa, who doesn't live here and acts like a midnight man in a nine o'clock town, but when I write that, I think that a lot of Cardinal fans secretly think so, too. We have an inferiority complex in Saint Louis and when a manager doesn't live here and won't move his family here, people resent it—even if they don't want to say so."

Yes, Mike Royko was a Cubs fan. But he saw the Cubs for what they were—losers. "As far as growing up with the Cubs," Royko's son David told me recently, "they were sort of—especially back then, before they were the lovable losers, or whatever they became—I think they were just a great team for him to be in the city with because they provided him with such entertainment beyond playing baseball. If they'd been a consistently great team with great management, they wouldn't have felt as—it was kind of like when he had his mongrel dog show. The Cubs were in some ways like a mongrel team for him. He could, you know—I don't want to say love—but feel a kinship with such an imperfect bunch, the mongrels. It wasn't the usual blind adulation of being a fan. Part of the reason he was such a fan was that they were so entertaining to him in their wonderful imperfection."

Regarding Royko and the Cubs, fate took a strange turn. McClellan remembers going to Wrigley Field as a kid and sharing it with a couple thousand die-hard Cubs fans. But that was before a burgeoning north-side demographic, the yuppies, turned the dingy neighborhood around the ballpark into "Wrigleyville." (Earlier, landlords had advertised apartments for rent beyond the left-field bleachers as belonging to the "Alta Vista neighborhood.") Royko wrote to defend Cubs die-hards against these poseurs. In 1988 he addressed "the specter that has haunted many North Side Chicagoans since it was decided that night games would be played in Wrigley Field. They have visions of beer-bloated Cubs fans rushing from the ball park to the nearest patch of yuppie-owned grass.

"Then jostling each other for space while shouting: 'Lemme through, I get first shot at that lawn.'

"'Okay, then I get the tulips.'

"'What about me?'

"'You can take the hedge.'"

Royko imagined stricken home owner Nadine Yuppwife on TV describing all she'd lost in the rampaging flood caused by the bladders of Cubs fans: "Even our beloved BMW has floated away with my husband in it."

Yet it was Nadine and her arriviste neighbors who absorbed Royko's way of thinking about the Cubs. "Royko made that whole losing thing kind of hip," observed McClellan.

When the Cubs won, they won; when they lost they were charming mongrels with floppy ears and wagging tails. The yuppies turned going to Cubs games into a lifestyle choice and elevated a dismal history of endless defeat into romantic karma. Wrigley Field would never be empty again. This is what can happen when a columnist fails to make it clear enough to a cohort of readers that he despises them. It's a case study that ought to be in textbooks.

David Royko said his father was someone who didn't necessarily dislike the person he'd just "kicked the crap out of in a column," any more than he liked the person he'd stood up for. If he was, in a sense, the voice of the eastern Europeans he grew up with, for them "he had as much disdain as he did love." In short, he saw more sides of more matters than a columnist has room to acknowledge. Said David Royko, "A lot of the things that made him great were also the things that made him miserable. . . . Making somebody suffer wasn't necessarily something he enjoyed even if it was something he did well."

Dissatisfaction is the columnist's lot. When his columns appear in the paper McClellan knows better than to read them, and he's learned no good can come from rereading an old column either. It embarrasses him, and he wonders if he'll ever learn to write, or it doesn't, and he mourns his lost talent. Just the other day he came into the office, listened to his voice mail, and heard a reader thank him for the hard-hitting column he'd written a few days earlier. McClellan's first thought: "Jeez, the column I'm writing for tomorrow is so silly—I don't know what this person will think of that."

The lesson in this: praise a columnist and you stir up trouble. I believe Royko ran into problems late in his career because he was so determined to defy his cheerleaders. So many of them, as I recall, welcomed the election of Richie Daley as mayor because it meant their hero would saddle up and resume his glorious Boss-bashing. But Royko would have none of it. He was true to his code. "I remember almost in passing him saying something about not automatically making assumptions about him," said David. "My sense of dad was he'd give everybody their own individual chance to screw up."   

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