Surely it was another vintage year, one for atrocityphiles to savor, though there was no single atrocity to compare with the City Council meeting of December 1-2, 1987.
And even though that meeting does not qualify for this year's political atrocity awards--known as the Janies, after one of our most atrocious public figures--it did provide us with this year's winner: acting mayor Eugene Sawyer.
How did he win? Let me count the ways:
First there was what the French would call "L'affaire Cokely," wherein one Steve Cokely disclosed that there was a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world in general and blacks in particular. This was exemplified in large part, according to Cokely, by the "fact" that Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with the AIDS virus.
Cokely, a longtime aid to Sawyer during his aldermanic term, had served him as a precinct captain and later, in the mayoral administration, as a spy in the black community. Cokely's anti-Semitic rantings and lunatic lectures on other international conspiracies--in the manner of Lyndon LaRouche--were well known to listeners of black radio and attendees of Louis Farrakhan's town meetings.
Jewish organizations brought some of Cokely's worst tapes to Sawyer a month before the story broke in the Tribune, and Sawyer did nothing.
After the story broke, Sawyer kept Cokely on his payroll for nearly six days, defending him by saying that he (Sawyer) had been a civilizing influence on the lad, that he bought him new shoes and got him to wearing suits, Apparently, however, he was unable to retread Cokely's mouth.
The event set off a nationwide firestorm exacerbating black-Jewish tensions, and established a pattern for the Sawyer administration's supreme crisis-management skills.
Next in our collection of Sawyer atrocities came his many explanations for a generous "fee" he received some years ago when he was still alderman of the Sixth Ward.
Some cynical Chicagoans may have thought this fee was a mere bribe in exchange for a zoning variation in his ward, but Sawyer quickly reassured us by saying he didn't remember why he'd received the fee--which he pegged at $20,000--but he was sure he'd declared it on his income tax returns. Then he said that it was $30,000, not $20,000, and that it was a "finder's fee" for a big loan he helped someone get in connection with an Arizona land deal. Then he said no, it was for a commercial development back in Chicago. Yeah, that's it. His explanation veered all over the place, taking a different turn every time the last turn went awry. On a single day Sawyer and his office issued an explanation, a clarification of the explanation, and then a clarification of the clarification.
We dub this episode "Variations on a Scheme."
Then there was Sawyer's announcement of candidacy--or his many announcements of candidacy. In order to beat Alderman Tim Evans to the draw, he announced last January that he would officialIy announce his campaign at a meeting of major Chicago clergy commemorating the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When advised by the clergy--whose ranks included Cardinal Bernardin--that such a forum was inappropriate, Sawyer switched his announcement to an Oak Park radio station the following Sunday morning. After announcing, he found out that Evans was not going to announce for a while, so Sawyer then announced that he had not really announced at the radio station. He thus stayed unannounced until early December, when the official announcement was announced. Thus there have been almost as many Sawyer announcements as Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation.
Sawyer has virtually given us an atrocity of the month, including such high points as his effort to make Erwin "the Professor of Patronage" France the head of the Chicago Board of Education. When the school board unanimously rejected France, Sawyer said--in the manner of Jane Byrne--that he'd never tried to make France head of the school board.
That is a sure way to win the Janie Award for local political atrocities.
Of course Sawyer was not the sole perpetrator of political atrocities this year, and so we must recognize some of the runners-up.
First, the Full Disclosure Award: Tim Evans's Atrocity
Many observers will no doubt feel that Alderman Tim Evans committed the year's greatest political atrocity by hiring me as a consultant to his mayoral campaign. Of course this has no effect on any of the following.
The Bernard Berenson Art Critics Award
If the Janie Award rules limited us to honoring single events, this might have been our first-place winner. The award is shared by members of the Chicago City Council, the Police Department, and the board of the Art Institute of Chicago--with honorable mention to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The atrocity began when one David Nelson, a student at the School of the Art Institute, painted Harold Washington wearing women's undergarments. This avant-garde act of self-expression was hung in a student show--the same student show that scandalized Chicago in the early 50s with a painting of Christ on the cross with an erection.
Upon hearing of this artistic atrocity, several aldermen rushed to the museum and demanded the painting be removed; some laid hands on it. A scuffle ensued, involving Art Institute security forces, the aldermen, students, and the police.
Amid all the misbehavior, the police did the right thing: they arrested the painting.
In the aftermath, the courageous Art Institute board decided the better part of valor was to allow the painting to remain under arrest, but on parole. It also decided more minority students were needed at the school. The ACLU defended everyone's right to be offensive and even defended artist Nelson from the charge that he was Jewish which, indeed, would be no mean feat for someone named Nelson.
The Steve Cokely Harmonious Race Relations Award
Goes to none other than Jean Simon, wife of the Illinois senator and former presidential candidate. She compared Jesse Jackson to Adolf Hitler by way of showing that charisma--which both of these folk had but her husband apparently did not--isn't everything. Subsequently, she sort of apologized for the bad comparison and said that Jesse should really be likened to Jimmy Swaggart. She sure knows how to turn a phrase.
The Bernie Epton Opportunity Knocks Award
Goes to Larry Bloom, the Fifth Ward alderman who, in tossing his propeller beanie into the mayoral ring, made a pitch to the conservative white community by cynically supporting the controversial home-equity program--and claiming that it wasn't racial. He was immediately set right by one of home equity's supporters, who told the press at a southwest-side meeting that home equity was needed because "they" are "surrounding us like Indians."
Then there was Larry's less than salient response when confronted by a reporter who learned that billionaire Lester Crown was a big donor to his campaign. Crown was once involved in a bribery ring involving the state legislature and only escaped prosecution by turning state's evidence and gaining immunity--not the sort of fellow one wants associated with a "reform" campaign.
Quoth Larry: "That was in Springfield."
"The Mirror Lies" Award
To perennnial atrocity-award winner Edward R. Vrdolyak, who ranted and raved that a poll conducted by the Tribune, which showed him a big loser in his race for circuit court clerk, was faked and rigged by his enemies. He blasted the Tribune, House Speaker Michael Madigan, and pollster Nick Panagakis, whose credentials and integrity were questioned. Election day showed the poll correct within a couple of points. At least Eddie had the grace not to claim vote fraud.
The "Janus the Wary" Award
Named for the mythological character who looks backward and forward--the prototypical two-faced being--this award was won easily this year by Aurelia Pucinski, recently elected clerk of the circuit court, who campaigned with Jesse Jackson in the housing projects in search of black votes--then suggested maybe Jesse shouldn't show up at a torchlight parade for Michael Dukakis.
This is the same Pucinski who supported Edward Vrdolyak for mayor in 1987, ran against him for clerk in 1988, and went on to claim she never "endorsed" Vrdolyak, merely stuffed envelopes for him.
The Understatement of the Year Award
Clear winner: Richard M. Daley, who admits in his first campaign commercials: "I may not be the best speaker in town . . ."
The Richie Daley Award for Rhetorical Clarity
To Recorder of Deeds Carol Moseley Braun, who noted in her eulogistic comments for deceased civil rights leader Al Raby: "He was always giving more than he gave."
The In and Out of the Closet Award
To Ed Burke, the macho alderman from the southwest side, who was a militant opponent of gay rights whilst a plain vanilla alderman; upon becoming a candidate for mayor, he voted for the gay rights ordinance--and began campaigning in gay bars for the "swing" vote. Now that he is a mayoral dropout, will he return to the closet?
The Stiff-Upper-Whatever Award
This one goes to septuagenarian George Dunne, who is president of the Cook County Board and chairman of the Democratic Central Committee when he isn't in the sack with two or three playmates in the employ of Cook County government. Demonstrating his commitment to equal opportunity employment, he takes his women straight and gay. The public consensus: keep it up, George.
The Cloudy Crystal Ball Award
Being nonpartisan, we give this award to Dunne's counterpart in the GOP, James Dvorak. The best quotation from Chairman Jim this year came when he proudly assured then-candidate George Bush that he (Bush) was certain to win Cook County in the November election. By golly, Chairman Jim was only off by about 300,000 votes!
The Justice for Spanky the Clown Award
To the Cook County Republican Central Committee, which endorsed not one, not two, not three, but four no-name candidates for mayor--omitting only the perennial Ray Wardingly, who works professionally as "Spanky the Clown." Too bad--at least Spanky has some name recognition.
The Truth in Advertising Award
To Alderman Bernard Stone, running for recorder of deeds, who wanted to be sure that the public knew the color of his opponent, Carol Moseley Braun. He printed her picture on some of his advertising, and when criticized said he made efforts to print it very light. He also noted that his own photos on billboards made him look black. Caveat votor.