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Fast Eddie's Editor: An Unabashed Confession

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Don't think for a minute that Robert Seltzner was some hack that Eddie Vrdolyak kept around to hold his coat. Seltzner is a tough guy too, and he was a big shot down on the East Side of Chicago when Vrdolyak was a nobody lawyer hustling personal-injury cases.

As editor of the local paper, the Daily Calumet, Seltzner kicked ass and took names. Vrdolyak would have been a fool even to think about entering politics without coming to Seltzner and setting terms.

"I would say he sought and maintained the friendship," Seltzner recalls. "He was the pursuer. It was to his advantage--I know that. That's not to say I was a reluctant bride. That's a bunch of bullshit. I wrote a daily column--six columns a week. The columnist is the hungriest newsman in the world. You're looking for stuff all the time. Eddie Vrdolyak is only one in a vast cast of people--one of many. And I got good stuff from him."

Seltzner and Vrdolyak did good things for each other for close to ten years, but the friendship blew up in 1975. Now Chicago Lawyer and Channel Five--focusing on Vrdolyak--have just picked over the old alliance, going into details that we would call humiliating if Seltzner felt the least bit humiliated. "I don't apologize for a damn thing," he tells us.

The East Side of Chicago has never been much for explaining itself to the city. Psychologically, it's as remote from the Loop as Ulster is from London. Seltzner put out a paper for a mill town occupied by feuding ethnic tribes that were united by a bunker mentality: everyone lived in terror of the blockbusters ravaging white neighborhoods due west. "We had not many gentle people down there," says James Linen, an easterner who was a couple years out of Yale when he bought the Daily Calumet in 1966, He described the kind of politician his paper liked to support:

"Someone who had a strong personality and ambition and talent and an independent source of income." Someone, in short, who could go north to City Hall and not be walked on or bought off.

"Vrdolyak certainly fit the bill."

Vrdolyak bulled into politics in 1967 when he took on the Tenth Ward incumbent for Democratic committeeman. Robert Seltzner says he gave Vrdolyak the issue that put him over the top. The issue was busing. A new superintendent of schools had just reported there was no other way to integrate the public schools.

Seltzner remembers: "I said to Vrdolyak, 'Get on the damn thing. This is the hottest thing you're ever going to have.' And he did."

How cozy did he and Vrdolyak get? "I was with him four or five times a week," says Seltzner. "Many times we ate together." According to the Chicago Lawyer article, by David Protess, "Over nine years, from 1966 through 1975, Seltzner claimed . . . to have published some 3,000 articles about Vrdolyak in the Daily Calumet--all favorable. In some issues, several Vrdolyak stories appeared."

The source of this claim, Protess explained, was a deposition Seltzner gave in 1978, when he and Vrdolyak were suing each other. The spat never got to trial. Seltzner sent over a "kind of a work log" he had kept during the years he and Vrdolyak were buddies--Protess called it a "diary"--and soon after, Seltzner was offered $1,000 to settle out of court.

The diary, wrote Protess, contained "some quite unflattering things" about Vrdolyak. Such as this entry dated February 5, 1969, about the way he drummed up business for his law firm:

"Vrdolyak called 3-hr lunch meet at Club; he paid off line of 4th District cops in cash for injury tips leading to cases."

That's the sort of curious vignette that never saw the light of day in the Daily Calumet.

"There's a little too much of a holier-than-thou attitude among reporters," Seltzner tells us. "Anyone who tells me people in the press are lily white--that's baloney. Publishers especially. I'm a publisher too. Publishers are in business for one purpose and one purpose only. To make money. And they do it in various ways. Not always according to the canons of journalism. I make no excuses."

(Vrdolyak, we should note, was interviewed for the Chicago Lawyer article and denied that he'd ever paid policemen to refer business to his firm. Seltzner was fired from the Daily Calumet by a new owner in 1978. Now the Pulitzer Publishing Company owns the paper, and publisher Mike Kelley says flatly, "We are a different company, an entirely different company. He's got nothing to do with us.")

In 1974, Vrdolyak, again the insurgent, entered the Democratic race for Cook County assessor against Mayor Daley's candidate, Tom Tully, and the Tribune gave him a long, hard look. Reporters George Bliss and Pam Zekman trekked down to Vrdolyak's East Side law office to ask him about reports that East Side policemen and precinct captains had swarmed to the scene of the 1972 Illinois Central train crash (there were 45 deaths and 360 injuries) to hustle up clients for his law practice.

Vrdolyak welcomed the reporters and told them that his friend Bob Seltzner would be sitting in on the conversation.

"It was unbelievable. The whole thing was unbelievable," Zekman remembers. She was furious. It was bad enough that Seltzner was a competing journalist. It was shameful that he'd put himself at Vrdolyak's disposal like this."

Why did Vrdolyak want you there? we asked Seltzner.

"I think he was mocking her a little bit. I don't know. Vrdolyak really didn't want to talk to her."

"It was clear he was there to counsel him," Zekman remembers.

"She had her thing to do," says Seltzner, "and I was doing my thing."

Which was?

"I had multiple levels of interest in those days and I'll just stay with that."

After the Tribune ran its expose (Vrdolyak vigorously denied their charges of ambulance chasing and said their report was dishonest and biased), a puzzled young law student from the East Side wrote the Daily Calumet. Why haven't you examined Vrdolyak in the same way? Why, on the contrary, did Vrdolyak tell the Tribune that the Daily Calumet's editor was his "very good friend and adviser"?

If you publish my letter, the law student asked, please don't print my name.

Seltzner blithely ignored the request for anonymity--"When I felt some son of a bitch wanted a free ride I'd use his name anyway," he says today--and devoted his "Dateline: Calumet" column to lecturing the young correspondent:

"The fact of the matter is that I am first and foremost not a second-class citizen," wrote Seltzner. "In addition to being an editor and newsman, I am a voter, a taxpayer, and over the last 15 years, I've been a political activist.

"In those capacities here and in other areas, I've worked with probably 200 or 250 candidates and public officials. . . . When they asked for advice, and they were quality candidates, I gave it without hesitation. . . . Edward Vrdolyak is among them, frankly. Why shouldn't he be?"

Then Seltzner accused the Tribune of using "all its resources" to drum up "sensational exposes" and defeat Vrdolyak, of waging a "machine-gun attack," of failing to turn up "one shred of prosecutable evidence." He wrote, "Just because the Tribune has a big stake in the assessor's office and is willing to throw all ethics out the window to support its man Tully, that doesn't mean that we have to blindly jump on the bandwagon."

Seltzner reheated his vitriol a year later when Vrdolyak, who'd lost to Tully, was running for reelection as alderman. Now he rendered the year-old Tribune investigation as "one of the most devastating political assassination trips seen anywhere in many a year" and Zekman as both "Little Pamela Stiletto" and a "little piranha fish."

Yet according to Protess in Chicago Lawyer: "Seltzner now says that the Tribune's IC crash allegations were accurate."

"Possibly I was too damn close to the situation," Seltzner reflects now.

Or maybe he wasn't.

"You get these tips," he explains, taking another tack. "Some of them you dismiss in hand. Some you set aside. I have stacks of notes--people call. Tips got old and got thrown away and I look back and say Damn! I should have followed that.

"I probably could have written more about him, I'm sure."

Seltzner says he fell out with Vrdolyak in 1975, when he caught Vrdolyak lying to him about a mutual friend whom Vrdolyak had abandoned politically. The Daily Calumet's coverage of the Tenth Ward alderman turned "vitriolic," to use Protess's word. And soon Vrdolyak was suing Seltzner over allegedly unpaid legal fees, while Seltzner sued Vrdolyak to be compensated for "public relations services."

Seltzner isn't angry at Chicago Lawyer for raking up the past. Far from it. He reprinted their entire article in the string of Villager News weekly papers that he now owns and operates in several southern suburbs.

"Hell, man," he told us, "I haven't got anything to hide. I've always done my journalism out in front. Once in a while somebody kicks you in the ass. I don't care."

To accompany the reprint, Seltzner wrote an editorial that shamelessly asserted: "It has long been the feeling here that the Chicago press has been soft on Vrdolyak, as indeed many people have been over his career. The fact is, Vrdolyak in his prime was a charming scoundrel, and many saw a different Eddie than actually existed."

You're including yourself? we asked.

"I'm not sacrosanct," said Seltzner.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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