Reviewing the epic life of Chris Chandler, Chicago journalist | Bleader

Reviewing the epic life of Chris Chandler, Chicago journalist

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Nelson Algren, who was a columnist for Chris Chandlers Free Press
  • Walter Albertin/New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer, Library of Congress
  • Nelson Algren, who was a columnist for Chris Chandler's Free Press

A professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska wrote some words of wisdom that are inscribed on the football stadium:

Not the victory but the action; Not the goal but the game; In the deed the glory.

There’s a poignant moment in the movie version of Les Miserables, which I saw the other day on TV. The insurgent students have massed behind their barricade, the cannons have been moved into position against them, and before the army is ordered to commence firing, a young officer steps forward to point out the obvious: there has been no general uprising, the public is hiding behind shuttered windows, and unless the young rebels give up and disperse they're all going to be slaughtered.

The gallant youths exchange glances. On the one hand, he has a point. On the other, not the goal but the game, in the deed the glory. So what the hell! They open fire, the cannons roar, and minutes later their bodies line the street.

Something about this scene inspired me. That’s it, I thought, that is the message of Chris Chandler to the cringing masses. Unless you're up to something you’re not alive! Whatever you’re up to will end badly, but what doesn't?

Chris Chandler has always been up to up to something. "What’s your scheme?" he asked me years ago, a humiliating moment as I had none. I reminded him of this remark in a recent conversation. "I always used to tell my boys, 'let’s plot and scheme,'" he said sentimentally.

One of those boys, Bob, his second of four sons, got in touch with me a while back to suggest I write a piece celebrating his father’s contributions to Chicago journalism while he was still around to enjoy it. This was an excellent idea, for Chandler has manned many a media barricade. My first attempt to find a job in Chicago was an interview I had with him in 1970 in connection with a newsweekly he was starting up called the Chicago Free Press. "He’s very smart," said a mutual friend. Smart enough not to hire me, it turned out, so I gave the Sun-Times a try and it wasn't. The Free Press lasted nine weeks. "In retrospect it was pretty damned good," says Chandler. "We had Nelson Algren as a columnist. We had [Bill] Granger writing for us. [Phil] Caputo. There was lots of good stuff in that magazine. But we ran into more trouble! We were visited by the FBI. We were raided by Rising Up Angry—they sprayed pig on the walls."

Why? Rising Up Angry operated at a high pitch of left-wing ferocity, but wasn’t Chandler quite the lefty himself? "We hadn’t consulted with them on two articles," Chandler explains. "One of them was Denise DeClue’s article on underground abortion clinics. There was a lot of craziness." Chandler says his financial backer was a local developer who’d cover the payroll every week by handing him money in an envelope so there’d be no paper trail. But rich angels have powerful friends who aren’t quite so nice, and when Chandler’s money guy told him not to publish a story about a pal of his and the Free Press published it anyway, the envelopes stopped.

After the Free Press folded, Chandler launched the Daily Planet, an alternative biweekly, and DeClue was his star reporter. (Later she’d be the second of his three wives—Algren introduced them.) At roughly the same time, other young entrepreneurs launched the Chicago Reader. Comparing the two from the sidelines, in my wisdom I declared that the Reader didn’t have a prayer, as it was uncommitted politically (and free!), while the Daily Planet was full of the two-fisted political content the times demanded. The Daily Planet survived a year and a half.

What happened, says Chandler, was "a blowup with my partner, Fred Eychaner." (Eychaner owned Newsweb, which printed the Daily Planet.) "He recruited me to edit it. We were supposed to be 50-50 partners, but when we had a falling out he said I only owned 2 percent of it."

Part of Chicago's allure before I arrived from Saint Louis was the presence here of the Chicago Journalism Review, which had been founded by young newspaper reporters disgusted with their papers’ feckless coverage of the ’68 Democratic convention and attendant battles in the city’s streets and parks between police and demonstrators. When I read about CJR I couldn’t have been prouder: finally journalists were stepping up and participating in the times they were witnessing! Chandler was one of CJR’s four founders. He’d covered convention week for the Sun-Times, but the reason he quit was unrelated. "They wouldn’t print a story I’d been assigned to for months about Charlie Swibel [head of the Chicago Housing Authority] and a big land deal on the west side. They kept having me rewrite it."

It turned out, he says, that he’d been caught in a power struggle between two top editors, one of them a friend of Swibel’s. So he left the Sun-Times and published the story in CJR, and then left CJR ("we had some real battles at the Journalism Review," he tells me), and launched the Free Press.

He’d started writing for the Sun-Times in 1964. "One of the reasons I thought I could quit the Sun-Times," he remembers, "even though I was married with two little kids was that in ’69 George McGovern asked me to be his press secretary, so I assumed I was headed to Washington."

Before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Chandler had taken a leave to work in Kennedy’s Gary office during the Indiana primary; that’s how he’d gotten to know McGovern. But after the job was offered, something happened.

"He wouldn’t return my phone calls," says Chandler. "I got more and more desperate. He finally called from O’Hare and said he wasn’t hiring me. He wouldn’t give a reason." But Chandler thinks someone told McGovern not to touch him because he was too radical. "So here I am," he says. "I’ve quit the Sun-Times. McGovern ran out on me. My [first] wife’s anxious to go to Washington—she’s from there. The Kennedy people cooked up a job in Washington putting out a progressive newsletter. But I turned that down to put out the Free Press, and my first wife never forgave me."

Not the goal but the game.

From 1976 to 1980 he was a newswriter at WBBM-TV assigned to Bill Kurtis’s Focus unit, the team that did the long, tough investigations. For a while it was a great job. But then a tip led to an exposé of dope dealing inside the Gary police headquarters, which led to a suit against the station by Gary police brass and an out-of-court settlement. In the course of this, Chandler got fired.

When Harold Washington decided to run for mayor in 1983, Chandler went to work for him as press secretary. It was a job he wound up splitting with Grayson Mitchell, another former Sun-Times reporter. Mitchell was black, and together they were the "salt-and-pepper twins." They saw themselves as canny political operators. But in 1985, Chandler says, Mitchell came out of a meeting with Washington and told him he had good news and bad news. "The good news," said Mitchell, "is that he thinks he’s won Council Wars. The bad news is he doesn’t need us anymore." Says Chandler, "And we were gone within a month. Alton Miller replaced Grayson [as press secretary] and Laura Washington replaced me [as deputy]."

In Chandler’s view, the problem with Miller, who became much closer to Washington than either Mitchell or Chandler had ever been, was that he didn’t have the same interest in politics. "When Harold died," says Chandler, "he didn’t have anybody around him who could strategize. We were all gone."

It’s a story Chandler hopes to tell in a book on the Washington years he's now writing. He sent me two of its eight chapters. They’re lively and entertaining, but too short. Chandler says he hopes to flesh out his manuscript with old news stories of his, like the ones he did on the ’68 riots for the Sun-Times, and a New Republic piece on the Black Panther killings, and a hard-edged story on Washington he published in the Sun-Times a few weeks before Washington died in 1987.

That story was dusted off by the Tribune last November when its editorial page published a look back at the late mayor. The Tribune said Chandler had written a "searing critique" that portrayed Washington "as a disengaged failure," and then added dismissively that Chandler’s portrait "struck many Chicagoans as over-the-top: Washington, after all, had seen to it that every neighborhood got equivalent city services. This page editorialized the morning after his death that, 'Harold Washington did not neglect white Chicago the way his predecessors neglected black Chicago.'"

It was pretty cavalier treatment—the Tribune dredging up something Chandler had written 25 years earlier in order to disagree with it and praise itself by comparison. Chandler says he fired back with a letter telling the Tribune Washington "was the best mayor in my lifetime." That letter would go into the book too. "It's kind of a strange package," Chandler allows.

There’s also a confession to toss into the cauldron. After Washington died, Chandler worked one week for the Darth Vader of Council Wars, Ed Vrodolyak, handling a news conference Vrdolyak wanted to hold to announce a plan to allow public housing tenants to form cooperatives. "I felt guilty about it, but I needed the money," Chandler says. Besides, he says, the tenant plan was actually his plan, which he'd touted to Washington but could never get him interested in. Vrodolyak picked it up, Chandler supposes, because white voters would like any scheme that promised to keep African-Americans contained in the projects.

"After Harold died," Chandler reminisces, "I did have some peaceful years. I spent eight years as a science writer up at Northwestern. I got fired there too." It was just politics, he explains: the head of his department quit, so he applied for the job, which would have meant jumping over his immediate boss, who wasn't about to let that happen. "I won the first round on appeal," Chandler tells me, "but there’s no way to win those battles."

Though he’s past 70, Chris Chandler is the epitome of the hustling young contemporary journalist. He’s always been ready to try this and try that, move on from each old failure to each new speculation, make laughably small amounts of money, and speak grandly of whatever it is he’s got cooking. In 2011 he launched northavenuemagazine.com, promoting it as an online monthly magazine that would "cover new works of art, look back at the city’s history, and attempt to bring the spirit of democracy that started in Tunisia and Egypt to our own City Hall." He offered new writing and vintage fare. "We reprinted a lot of stuff from the Free Press, including some Nelson Algren stuff," says Chandler. One of the most entertaining tributes to Mike Royko I’ve ever read, by Jim Tuohy, had been first published in New City in 1997.

Chandler concedes that the idea of creating an online anything that would be freshened once a month was probably a big mistake, and he ran into other problems before he shut down North Avenue Magazine this spring. "I was originally hoping I’d get the younger generation involved," he explains, referring to his four sons. "But then they sort of lost interest. There was no money in it, and there was some tension between the brothers. I lost them as writers, and I was never able to recruit writers who took a real interest. Tuohy was great, but Tuohy was running out of gas after two and a half years."

As his son Bob had advised me the time to write about his father was now, I ask Chris Chandler how his health is. "Terrible," he says. "There was a heart attack, last-stage cancer, I’ve got nuts and bolts in my spine. I was fine until I hit 70, and now it’s one thing about another. The cancer’s under control from some fancy new thing they do, and I think as a scientific assessment I have several more years."

The fancy new thing involved treating his prostate cancer by eliminating his testosterone, a treatment that he understands bought him an extra four or five years. The side effects led him to write "Journey to the Other Side," for North Avenue Magazine. It’s a light piece laughing at his enlarged breasts and hot flashes. "I’ve been a macho guy all my life," says Chandler.

Knowing his life expectancy "puts me in a state of mind to get some things done," he says. The book is one of those things. Another is doing something with research he remembers from his Northwestern days that indicated Einstein might have been right after all about quantum mechanics.

There are lots of different bucket lists. Chandler's is the first one I've heard of that says (1) Finish book. (2) Vindicate Einstein.

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