After a while, you start to notice what Bob Greene doesn't say.
Last month, an old friend from his beloved hometown paradise of Columbus, Ohio, was murdered. Bob stressed how shocking it was for this to happen to someone from such a "peaceful" place.
"That's not supposed to be part of the stageplay," Bob complained. Where, then, are murders "supposed" to happen? Bob doesn't say. But we can guess: in scary cities like Chicago. Fallen from grace, booted from our small-town Edens, Chicagoans' lives are basically forfeit, Bob figures. Murder is ho-hum to us. When our childhood friends are slain, we urbanites just shrug and slump our faces back into the bowl of cocaine. No biggie. Not like in Columbus.
Then there's Baby Richard. You'd think that by now no idea has gone unexpressed in Bob's endless keening for the lad.
Not true. Bob keeps listing the names of those five Illinois Supreme Court justices, over and over again. "James D. Heiple, Michael Bilandic, Charles Freeman, John Nickels and Moses Harrison II." But he doesn't say to what end. At times he seems to want his readers to track them down and kill them. "The Illinois Supreme Court reconvenes in Springfield this week," he points out, stopping short of providing a map and bullets.
On the other hand, perhaps repeating the names is just a convenient trope to use up another 2.3 lines of column space.
Bob frequently offers his reason for writing endlessly about Baby Richard. "A crime was committed against a child," he intones. "A child was sinned against." The implication is that this is one of the central crimes of the 20th century, and thus warrants its own literature, like the Holocaust. Bob doesn't say the real reason, the one he blurted out on Dateline NBC just after Richard's transfer.
Moments before Baby Richard was handed over to Otakar "Satan" Kirchner, Bob went up to the boy and told him that he, Bob Greene, loves him. Bob admitted this on TV.
In all of his columns on the Baby Richard tragedy, Bob has never mentioned this quite salient point. He prefers to suggest his motive is solemn duty: "Someone must bear witness when a child is sinned against and hurt," he writes. That someone must be Bob.
Love is a better explanation. It puts Baby Richard in the context of Bob's world, places him on the pitiful small shelf of his fixations, next to Ohio, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Barbie. All beloved objects, worn away by Bob's kisses. And now Richard.
Bob doesn't say exactly why he loves Baby Richard. Again, we must guess. Bob loves Baby Richard because the case so reminds him of himself--another unfortunate little boy pried away from his loving midwestern family by the forces of cruel fate. In Bob's case, fate came not in the chubby, grasping hands of Otakar Kirchner, but as a phenomenally better job and more money in five minutes than he could earn in a Columbus, Ohio, lifetime. Richard was cast into a drab little Mokena apartment with Otakar Kirchner stuffing countless pancakes down his tiny throat, while Bob was exiled to the murderous urban hell of Chicago.
We couldn't expect Bob to reach this epiphany in a column--lack of self-knowledge is what makes Bob's world so maddeningly insular. And now Baby Richard is trapped in that world.
Baby Richard's televised sobs, though heartbreaking, were brief. Just how much damage was caused by the transfer--and how much from having Bob Greene lurch out of nowhere and tell Richard that he loves him--will be impossible to determine. Hopefully, the hardest days are now behind Richard, and he will go on to live a dynamic, forward-looking life, the sort of life denied Bob Greene, whose anguished cries of loss and bewilderment will haunt us long after Baby Richard's sobs have faded from memory.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Jeff Heller.