"In all my years in journalism," Vernon Jarrett told us, "I have never been considered an objective observer. That ain't me."
The publisher signs the paychecks, but most journalists we know think of themselves as being in the employ of truth, justice, and freedom. Vernon Jarrett carries this attitude to its extreme: he is a man with an agenda, and he argues for it in his Sun-Times column as if it is the reason the newspaper exists.
Well, it is one reason. The First Amendment was not written to protect disinterested professionalism; the danger it addressed was that some pamphleteers would be forbidden to distribute their pamphlets. What we've liked about Jarrett's columns is that they're rooted in something bigger than he is. That something is black advancement.
Jarrett gets himself into trouble. Fifteen months ago he wrote a column about a federal jury awarding 13 white Chicago policemen $4.3 million in damages in a "patently phony 'reverse discrimination' case." There was but one black on the heavily suburban jury, a Chicago woman whom Jarrett identified by name, commenting: "Over the years I've learned to accept the fact that in every assault on human rights . . . we can expect some of the victims of injustice to cooperate with their enemies."
A lot of people, ourself included, thought Jarrett had gone perilously close to siccing. But Jarrett says today: "She had an almost generic name. I didn't give an address. Everybody thought I was inviting her murder. Nobody touched that woman!"
Last week, Jarrett blew in a much bigger storm. Monday night, at the Harold Washington memorial service at the Pavilion, Jarrett--introduced as "the mayor's good friend, one of his closest confidants"--made a stunning extemporaneous speech. Again his theme was the betrayal of blacks by blacks:
He remembered the late mayor telling him: "Vernon, this is one reason I could never be a racist if I wanted to, because black people can do just as much damage to each other as white people do to us. And if we don't do something about them, they will destroy us before the white man can get to us."
And Jarrett continued: "So what do you do? You treat your black enemies the same way you do the Ku Klux Klan!"
Jarrett told his audience: "You have some black people, who call themselves black but who are Negroes, in the City Council who have ceased to be men and women. And you must deal with them not next week, not next month, not only in the next election, but tomorrow. . . .
"Do not let these fools drag us down with them back into chains. Take some action, whatever you think is necessary."
The next day Eddie Vrdolyak traveled from one TV station to another denouncing Jarrett's speech as irresponsible and urging anyone who agreed with him to call and protest. (Vrdolyak, you should remember, is suing the Sun-Times for libel.) The Sun-Times was inundated by calls from angry whites demanding that Jarrett be fired; many callers canceled their subscriptions.
Some people at the paper told us Jarrett came within a hair of losing his job. He denies it. "I'm kind of happy with the way Bob Page himself responded," Jarrett told us, referring to the publisher of the Sun-Times. "Bob Page has not threatened to fire me and has not even threatened to suspend me. And the same with Joe Ahern"--general manager of WLS TV, where Jarrett free-lances as a commentator.
What Page did say, according to Jarrett, was that "it was not proper in his opinion for writers on a newspaper to make speeches at rallies endorsing candidates."
Jarrett said he told Page he agreed with that. But hasn't the Pavilion service been unanimously construed as a rally for Timothy Evans? "I don't know about construing," Jarrett told us. "I understood it was a memorial for Harold Washington."
However hot the water Jarrett found himself in, an influential friend stepped forward to fish him out. Tuesday evening at City Hall, then occupied and surrounded by thousands of Evans supporters, the late mayor's fiancee, Mary Ella Smith, pulled aside the Sun-Times's Ray Hanania in the presence of several other reporters and warned him of riots and a black boycott of his newspaper if anything happened to Jarrett.
"Vernon is my friend," she said.
And now the black calls started to pour in, all threatening a boycott. "It seemed orchestrated," said someone on the city desk, "a rehearsed speech."
Normally we ridicule feckless journalism, but our heart goes out to Page at this hour. A "message from the publisher" appeared on top of the front page Wednesday morning, and Page--damned whatever he did--tried to split it down the middle.
"I want to make it absolutely clear . . . that Mr. Jarrett made those remarks not as a representative of the Sun-Times but in his personal capacity."
On the other hand, "I cannot endorse any action that would divide our city."
But bear in mind, "The Sun-Times is home to a compendium of views, many of which the editors and I disagree with."
Nevertheless, "We have a strong respect for law and order and for traditional American values."
Make no mistake, "No threats of any kind will cause me or this newspaper to veer from that course of dedication to making Chicago a city where every citizen . . . has a feeling of belonging . . ."
However, "We cannot continue moving toward that goal by resorting to unseemly deals or threats or actual violence."
And on page seven, under the headline "1,000 phone Sun-Times about speech by Jarrett," there was an article on the controversy that did not even quote Jarrett (the original article on the Pavilion rally did not mention him).
"The point I was trying to make was antiracism," Jarrett insists. "When I said they should treat them the same way they treat Ku Klux Klan, it didn't mean violence. Can you remember anybody physically attacking the Ku Klux Klan? It meant you write them off and denounce them as an enemy. There is no way you can put violence in there if you know anything about black history."
A newspaper is a messy thing whose rules change from desk to desk. It does not bother us particularly that Jarrett devotes his whole life to the agenda he preaches in his column. However Page would be within his own rights if he decided it's not cost-effective to keep that column around.
Like Jarrett, he'd be responding to real interests.
Journalism offends us when it's empty posturing; for example, Steve Neal last Friday striking an attitude of contempt in a fatuous column that ridiculed interim mayor David Orr's mustache as it managed to compare Orr with Ferdinand Marcos. Disingenuousness is also a posture, and unfortunately Vernon Jarrett's column in the same Friday paper gave us a whiff of it.
Jarrett was saying that for "Harold's people," the choice between Evans and Eugene Sawyer "grew from a desire to a strong emotional expectancy [his emphasis]."
"And when reports leaked that several black aldermen . . . were conspiring with leaders of the defunct Vrdolyak 29, a broadly-based expectancy swelled to a demand."
Those feelings didn't just grow and swell by magic. Jarrett was there in the pulpit pumping them up. When a columnist obscures his political life--as George Will obscured his advisory role with Ronald Reagan--he's contributing to the argument that he shouldn't have one.
Night of Infamy
On September 11, 1973, the armed forces of Chile turned on President Salvador Allende. Jets strafed the presidential palace as tanks rumbled toward it, and Allende was killed in the assault. A junta led by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte seized the government, suspended all political activity, and banned the Communist, Socialist, and Radical parties. Chileans perceived to be enemies of the new order were rounded up and shot.
This was a coup d'etat. The election of Eugene Sawyer by black aldermen who once had sworn loyalty to Harold Washington, only to make common cause with the late mayor's political enemies, was not, no matter how painful the symbolism of treachery.
A black man is mayor. A new mayor can be elected in less than two years. It looks to us like a time to mourn but not despair. And we suggest the chaos of last week was in large part an effect of aldermen reacting to the law of succession as they found it.
This possibility eluded the Tribune's hysterical editorial of December 3, "Chicago's night of infamy." The Tribune denounced all sides for angling after the same low end: "to arrange the hasty selection of an acting mayor, cut the public out of the deal and take over City Hall for at least 17 months without the need to seek voter approval." In short: "the chance to govern without accountability."
It's true, we are no longer governed by a mayor whom we elected to that office. But there is one person to blame, not 50. That person is Harold Washington, for not watching his weight.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.