By Michael Miner
Much sooner than he said he would, Howard Tyner has annointed a successor to Mike Royko. After Labor Day John Kass steps onto page three of the Tribune, to the surprise of no one except perhaps Kass.
Last May Tyner, the Tribune's editor, told me, "If I really didn't like somebody around here I'd suggest they start writing a column on page three." Tyner said then he was in no rush to replace Royko. "We don't have the most famous columnist in the country right now, and I'd like to reserve that place for somebody who falls into that category."
Kass doesn't. Until he filled Eric Zorn's space this summer while Zorn took six weeks of paternity leave he wasn't a columnist at all. "I went out to lunch one day in June with a friend of mine," Kass says. "It was about the time Daley was putting that phony ethics bill through to cover himself. I came back and started writing a memo for the [Tribune's] City Hall guys who were new there, stuff to consider based on my experience there, and they said, 'Go into the photo lab and take a picture. You're writing a column.' I had that memo, and I basically made a column out of it--and I kept going."
The column said, "By concentrating on corrupt aldermen who are happy with a fistful of twenties, Chicago can ignore the millions and millions earmarked for friends of City Hall. Included are Daley's dinner buddies who get school development contracts worth tens of millions of dollars in fees; the political cronies who get leverage selling construction supplies to connected contractors; the friends of his wife who cash in for millions..."
"I personally like him," Kass told me when I asked him what he thinks of the mayor. "I think he's a pretty good mayor. But there are things that need to be written about."
While Kass was filling in for Zorn, Fran Spielman, the Sun-Times's City Hall reporter, spotted Tyner and managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski at a City Council meeting. "He's doing a fantastic job. Keep him there," Spielman says she told Kass's bosses. "If we do that we lose a great political writer," Tyner replied. "So what?" said Spielman.
And that's how Tyner was thinking. "Kass has an unusual Chicago voice, and he wrote some wonderful columns as a fill-in," Tyner said Monday. "I miss having somebody on page three."
Do your readers? I asked him.
Among Chicago journalists, Kass had become the apparent heir even before Royko died. Royko defined a Chicago voice as an ethnic voice, a neighborhood voice, ornery, shrewd, unimpressed, and full of stories. If the Tribune intended to keep the stream flowing beyond Royko, who else? Kass wrote with a columnist's vigor. If Royko's dad was a Ukrainian who ran a tavern, Kass's was a Greek who had a grocery at 55th and California. As a little kid Kass used to stand on a box and weigh produce, and when the neighborhood was going through its troubles he remembers the day a black kid stabbed by whites staggered a block and collapsed at the grocery door.
An uncle of Kass's ran a steak house at 55th and Halsted where politicians dined. Another uncle had a place in Bridgeport. "The Daleys used to spend time in there shooting straws at each other across the booth."
Kass, who's 41, told me, "I've done stuff. I've had a life before journalism." He's dug ditches, landscaped, been a waiter, a butcher, a produce man. He put in a year as cargo officer on a merchant ship that sailed under a Greek flag and almost died in Nigeria from a reaction to the grain in the hold.
"Our dad was an immigrant," he said, "our customers were immigrants. You got to meet people you don't generally see if you come out of a major university and go into journalism."
Kass studied film at Columbia College. "I didn't have a pedigree," he said. He was interested in newspapers, but no one would hire him but the old Daily Calumet, which took him on as an intern. But Jane Byrne was mayor then, and Ed Vrdolyak, who ran the southeast side, the paper's backyard, was Democratic Party chairman and virtually comayor. So Kass found himself in the right place "to develop a critical vocabulary," as he puts it.
"He might be a little overcynical," says Ray Hanania, the former Sun-Times City Hall reporter who used to be Kass's good friend. "Remember, nobody spoon-fed him, there's no journalistic silver spoon in his mouth. Look, he had to scratch his way up to the top, and he doesn't give a shit what anybody thinks about it." Hanania is still a little dumbfounded that Kass refused to believe his version of the affair that cost Hanania his job. Kass believed Hanania really did write a press release for Miriam Santos back when Hanania was dating the city treasurer. "My denials meant nothing!" says Hanania.
"That was a tough one," says Kass. "But you have to write the story."
Kass moved on to the Tribune in 1984 after selling a big freelance story to that paper, an investigation into an influential crony of Harold Washington, the new mayor. But soon Kass's bosses sat him down, told him he couldn't write, and basically fired him. They said he could work nights three months to get a clip file together, but then he was through. The night editor gave Kass a chance to go out and break some decent stories, and he hung on to his job.
In later years the Tribune's given Kass all sorts of leeway, allowing him to write stories that, as Hanania observed, "more often than not were very long columns." Savor the cold-blooded profile of the mayor that Kass wrote for the Tribune magazine on the eve of last summer's Democratic convention, an exhilarating exercise in precise observation.
"He is very, very cynical," said a politician who's read Kass closely and admires his hard-nosed take on Daley. "Sometimes he goes too far, but he's certainly skilled." A Tribune reporter who expected Kass to wind up in his new job commented wryly, "If you're trying to emulate Royko, it would be nice if you start young as a liberal before you lose it, as Royko did."
Royko started as a coruscatingly funny champion of small people ground under by big shots. As a contemptuous chronicler of the follies of those big shots, Kass is every inch Royko's successor. But if there's a compassionate side to Kass--or a gift for making readers laugh out loud--it's been slow to reveal itself.
"Actually, I do like politicians," he told me. "I admire them all in the sense they're all in the game. They have to put themselves out there and go for it. I love writing about them. I think it's kind of an entertainment, don't you?" In particular, Kass went on, "I like the guys on the left and the guys on the right. Obviously the ones in the middle, like Daley, they're the ones who make the deals. But I like ideas."
I went back over some of his midsummer columns. He dissects local politics with icy authority. His whimsy needs work. He can be gratuitously cruel, and he has trouble remembering that there's more to people, even politicians, than their roles as players in a game. Royko used to say he regretted the times he'd "peeled a grape with an ax." Kass knows the phrase and what it means, even if he can't always resist the temptation. "You learn," he said.
"He's young," Fran Spielman said. "He's going to develop. His values are good. His values are similar to Chicago's. He's going to be a great voice. He'll be a big, big star. I could sense for years they were grooming him for this. I had that feeling. I told him so."
Royko began slowly, and as he gained confidence and stature built up to five columns a week. Tyner's starting Kass at four. "That is slowly," Tyner said. "We'll work up to seven."
The Salvi Salvos
Asked the other day, at a breakfast for Chicago publicists, about the character of the paper he was running, Sun-Times editor Nigel Wade pointed to his columnists. They give the paper character, Wade said.
The response was a little off target. The question had to do with institutional character, idiosyncrasy, the sort of personality that Colonel McCormick's Tribune oozed from every pore. No paper's just the sum of its diverse individual voices--though the odd assortment of conservative voices that predominate at the Sun-Times does create an impression. Yet the various voices Wade's assembled do represent a welcome institutional change. He's turned back the clock and made the Sun-Times a writer's paper, which is what it was before the Field family sold it to Rupert Murdoch in 1984. Thereafter the staff dwindled and became editor heavy, on the managerial theory that what a decimated army needs most is a lot of colonels.
Columns were on Wade's mind at the breakfast he hosted. A sheet passed out to the publicists charted the Sun-Times columns by day and section--a total of 22 on Sunday, 10 on Monday, 14 on Tuesday, and so on. And when Wade was asked how a column by Sugar Rautbord happened to show up in the paper--and would she write another--he became indignant. Wade "started screaming"--as someone there put it--about free speech and the First Amendment. Write your own column and send it to me, Wade responded. Maybe I'll run it. That's the Sun-Times spirit these days. Wade's delighted to throw fresh columnists into battle, where they can beat up the opposition and each other. He's turned the Sun-Times into a mosh pit.
The rowdiest slam dancer is Dennis Byrne, and Wade's raised him from three columns a week to four. It's perfectly permissible--if all too easy--for a columnist struggling for an idea to see what Dennis Byrne had to say yesterday and then disagree with him. Or for Byrne to excoriate his colleagues for their follies.
Take last week. On Sunday Byrne ridiculed the city's decision to designate a stretch of Halsted as Boys Town. On Monday Richard Roeper took on "the critics," engaging many of Byrne's arguments point by point.
Swell. It was good fun and good journalism. I'd read pro and con, and now I knew what I thought (I thought Roeper was right, though Mary Mitchell added heft to the contrarian viewpoint with her column in last Sunday's paper).
And more good fun was to follow. Tuesday's Sun-Times offered Neil Steinberg on Al Salvi's remarkable display of attrition over having opposed gun-control legislation. Steinberg called Salvi's recantation, originally published in the Sun-Times, "a monarch butterfly of oily insincerity." The day before Steinberg appeared, Eric Zorn had written along the same lines in the Tribune. Zorn accused Salvi of speaking "unaccented Weasel" and said he'd surrendered "the right to say that he really stands for anything."
I think Zorn and Steinberg didn't read Salvi's declaration carefully enough. It was neither insincere nor weasel worded. The former Republican Senate candidate didn't pretend to have adjusted principles; he said he was converting because last November he woke up a loser and didn't like how it felt. He was an unabashed Paul declaring halfway to Damascus, "From now on I'd better be a Christian. They've got the votes."
Byrne leaped to Salvi's defense. An expert contrarian with a genius for perceiving double standards that victimize conservatives, Byrne railed at the "self-righteous in the politics and media businesses" who'd condemned Salvi but never his Senate opponent, Richard Durbin, when Durbin "jettisoned his resolute pro-life position." In a second column on the subject he ridiculed the "pointy-headed crowd" that's given a pass to every other politician who changed his mind.
Naturally, Byrne didn't name names. It's not done. Roeper hadn't named Byrne either. This prissiness is an unfortunate newspaper convention. It frustrates readers, and in an era of Web surfers accustomed to following arguments link by link it's intellectually obsolete.
Byrne quoted Salvi sympathetically. "They [talk] about change of heart as if it were a criminal act," Salvi told him. "I'm baffled by some of the venom." But what made Salvi's original essay so remarkable is that it claimed no "change of heart." Contrary to a careless headline, it claimed no change of mind. It did not claim--though the same headline did--that he'd been "wrong about guns." All Salvi allowed was that he'd sent the "wrong message" to voters, lost because of it, and therefore intended to send a different one in his next race.
Salvi's essay was one of the most open admissions of political calculation a politician's ever made. It deserves some sort of praise. But don't blame his critics for missing this. What he told Byrne shows that Salvi missed it himself.
And of course so did Byrne. "Your sin," he told Salvi in his column, "is that you're a conservative, making you an extremist, a nut, a lunatic, a weasel....Never mind that the folks who condemn you now for having abandoned a core 'moral' issue are the same sort of folks who instruct me to keep my 'morality' out of politics." Here Byrne was overlooking the obvious--which is that by announcing his new position in a newspaper essay Salvi had invited judgment--and erecting his usual straw man, that pack of liberal hypocrites who sink their fangs into conservative values and gnaw at the heels of Byrne himself.
Late in the week Zorn responded. There's nothing wrong with a change of heart, he wrote, but Salvi changed nothing but his "political strategy." For a true change of heart Zorn pointed to Byrne himself (naturally without naming him). He'd evolved from liberal to conservative, a change useful at work, perhaps, but apparently "genuine nevertheless."
This rang of calculated gallantry in the face of thoughtless calumny. For Byrne had written, "The problem, Al, isn't the inconsistency of politicians. It is the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the high-bound critics who apply a standard to you that they don't to their own pals. And who, by doing so, discredit the honorable professions of politics and journalism." (High-bound?)
Even in a mosh pit there are rules. Not naming the person you're thumping is a venial sin. Not knowing when to stop is a lot worse. Last week Byrne decreed that a certain high-bounding kangaroo corps--he must have meant Neil Steinberg and Eric Zorn--had dishonored journalism. That's a profound accusation made frivolously. Words do have meaning.
Tribune, January 7, 1997: "Catherine O'Leary was at home in bed--not milking her infamous cow in the barn--when the Great Chicago Fire started on Oct. 8, 1871....A review of the transcript from the inquiry, along with long-hidden land records, points a finger of suspicion at an O'Leary neighbor named Daniel 'Peg Leg' Sullivan. Those are the conclusions of a research paper soon to be published in the Illinois State Historical Society journal titled, 'Did the Cow Do It? A New Look at the Cause of the Great Chicago Fire.'"
Sun-Times, August 18, 1997, page one: "New doubts are snuffing out one of Chicago's most enduring legends: that Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern that started the Great Fire. An article in a recent Illinois Historical Journal concludes that neighbor Daniel 'Peg Leg' Sullivan...is the more likely culprit."
Trail a story by a day and you get scooped. Trail by seven months and you get an exclusive.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Kass photo/ uncredited.