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The essence of style is avoidance. We learn not to attempt what we know we cannot do well. Authors who can’t write dialogue concoct an aesthetic that has no use for it—and hope critics call them daring and experimental. Reporters allowed to pick and choose among topics reject perfectly good story ideas because they recognize the mismatch—good idea, wrong writer.
When John Kass set out to interview the candidates running for governor I wondered if he would stumble over Jim Ryan. It’s not that Kass is blind to Ryan’s flaws, but unlike with George Ryan’s, or Rod Blagojevich’s, he’s just not that into them. So when it comes to Jim Ryan, Kass, for whatever reason, is the wrong writer.
I assume he knows it, and if his project hadn’t demanded it, I doubt if he’d have bothered.
In a 2002 column he referred to “a stink rising from the prosecution” of Rolando Cruz and two other innocent men for the 1983 murder of ten-year-old Jeanine Nicarico in Du Page County. As Kass noted, that had been Jim Ryan’s prosecution. But, wrote Kass then, “I’m not going to pick the Nicarico case apart today. My colleague Eric Zorn has done a fine job of that in his own columns.”
In fact, Zorn has been doing that for far longer than Kass has had a column. No wonder Kass hasn’t bothered.
Kass’s 2002 column wasn’t about Jim Ryan, but about his successor as Du Page County State’s Attorney, Joe Birkett, whom Kass accused of having “crossed the line” in showing solidarity with the Du Page Seven. (These were police and prosecutors—Jim Ryan not among them—accused of obstructing justice in the Nicarico case. All were acquitted.) So far as I can see from the Tribune online archives, that was the only column Kass ever wrote that mentioned Rolando Cruz, who spent ten years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.
But so what? Kass was the wrong writer for that scandal but he’s gotten magnificently angry over others. Columnists pick and choose. Zorn brought Tribune heat against Jim Ryan, and Don Wycliff thundered in an editorial, “Ryan needs to explain why getting a conviction was more important to him than getting justice. One thing is clear: None of those involved in the Cruz prosecution deserves ever again to enjoy a position of public honor or trust. They have demonstrated that they have no honor and they merit no trust.”
Kass could write that way, and often did, about George Ryan, whom he called “as corrupt as they come” long after he’d left office. He felt George Ryan’s sins in his gut. He did not feel Jim Ryan’s there, nor did he have that engorged feeling about the law-and-order travesties that sent so many innocent Illinois men besides Cruz to death row (the death row George Ryan eventually cleared out). But again, the Tribune had that covered, with writers such as Steve Mills and Maury Possley, who did feel the passion and did carry the load.
A few days ago Kass had breakfast with Jim Ryan. His November 29 column called Ryan a politician who “never took a dime in public life” and said that in 2002, when Ryan, as attorney general, ran for governor against Rod Blagojevich, he “had the misfortune of having the same last name as George Ryan.” As if that was why he lost.
Kass quick-stepped past the more important reason. He wrote, “Recently, Ryan . . . issued a public apology over the Jeanine Nicarico case, in which Ryan supported the prosecution of two men who later were cleared. ‘I acted in good faith, but I guess that when I was younger, I had more faith in the system than I do now,’ he told Kass. ‘It turned out I was wrong. That’s why I now have grave concerns about capital punishment.’”
Kass went on to say that Jim Ryan’s critics “will point out that Ryan already had his chance,” and that “others with smarmy insider connections will flit behind the scenes and whisper that Ryan has been diminished because he was once friends with convicted influence pedder Stuart Levin.” But that is not what Ryan’s severest critics will point out, and it is not why in so many eyes Ryan has been diminished, and surely Kass knows that.
Kass has broken bread with the gubernatorial candidates in order to let them have their say, not to excoriate them. But he has to frame them—he has to say this is their baggage and describe it recognizably. When an experienced writer can’t do that, it’s a sign he’s in a place where he doesn’t want to be. Jim Ryan is a righteous conservative with a massive stain on his record, making him a complicated subject of commentary that Kass apparently would prefer to leave to others.