By Tori Marlan
Most weekdays Bill Corcoran gets up at four in the morning, shortly after the Chicago Sun-Times lands on the front porch of his southwest-side home. By five the Daily Southtown and the Tribune have arrived. By six he's finished with all three papers, and more often than not he's ticked off enough to sit down at his word processor, clatter out his thoughts on what he's read, and fax them to the editors of the offending publications.
An hour later Daniel John Sobieski arrives at the Midway el stop, where he buys the Sun-Times and the Defender. In the 45 minutes it usually takes to get to his office downtown, he scours the papers or a magazine he's brought from home for something that "sticks in my craw." If he's previously written about the topic, he might update an old letter to an editor that's stored on his computer and "whiz it out" by nine. Otherwise he writes new letters during lunch or at home in the evening.
Both men consider their letter writing less a hobby than a duty; they're both compelled to set records straight, to tell truths untold, to speak for those who can't or won't speak for themselves.
"They're very prolific," says Ed Koziarski, editorial-page editor of the Daily Southtown. "A lot of days their letters are here before I am."
Though they're among a handful of chronic letter writers in Chicago, editors say Corcoran and Sobieski stand out because they're political polar opposites. Sobieski, a 48-year-old computer analyst who stopped counting his correspondences long ago--at about 4,000--claims the media is outrageously liberal. Besides having long, statistic-laden letters printed in publications like the Des Plaines Valley News, the Washington Post, and Time, he's been paid to write for Human Events, Reason, and the Sun-Times. Corcoran, a 68-year-old retiree, aims his pithy, often playful missives mostly at local publications in hopes of countering the media's "extreme right" bias and serving as an "ombudsman for the disenfranchised."
Only a small fraction of the letters Sobieski and Corcoran toil over end up in print, but they're published often enough that their names are familiar to those who read the letters pages. Most editors, to avoid the perception of favoritism, try to give space to as many readers as possible and have set loose guidelines for how often they'll run one guy's letters. For the Sun-Times, it's once a week; for the Tribune, it's once every six weeks. "I don't want it to seem like it's an old codgers' network," explains the Trib's Jim Szantor.
For the Southtown, it's once a month, but since it has a smaller circulation and gets less mail than the metropolitan dailies, it's more likely to break its own rules. When Koziarski went on a vacation earlier this year, Corcoran's letters ran every day for a week. Corcoran's wife likes to joke that he should be on the payroll.
Maybe she has a point: both Corcoran and Sobieski do stir readers' passions in the face of declining interest in newspapers. In letters columns Sobieski has been called a "stooge for polluters," and his views have been said to "belong to the same species of chauvinistic, xenophobic, violence-worshipping...let's-go-blow-away-some-Third-World-Latinos-to-show-how-tough-we-really-are madness of the Jesse Helms variety." To his face, Corcoran says, he has been called a "sniveling liberal" and a "nigger lover." Once he was even fingered as a criminal.
"I was sitting outside a coffee shop in my neighborhood reading something," he recalls, "and this guy came out there--a schoolteacher in Chicago--and he pointed at me and said, 'Murderer. Murderer. Murderer.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'What you wrote about abortion.'"
Corcoran was taken aback. Quarreling isn't his style. "I put my thoughts down on paper," he says. "That's my position, you can read it in the paper. And I'd rather have it that way than getting into this confrontation, trying to sell my point to somebody. In fact, I've had many people read my stuff and say something to me, and I'll say, 'Hey, you're free to write yourself. Write your own letter. Send it in.'"
Corcoran, of course, is no longer on anyone's payroll. He spends his days reading, running errands, watching C-SPAN, and frequenting coffee shops near his home, in well-to-do Beverly. He subscribes to the New Yorker, New York, Vanity Fair, George, and the National Enquirer. "When they're writing about stars, their research is excellent," he says. When he goes out, he's sure to pick up the Beverly Review, the Reader, the London Times, the New York Times, Time, and Newsweek. Occasionally he buys the Wall Street Journal, even though "their whole editorial position is that they apparently just do not believe in facts."
Corcoran believes in facts (though at one time he didn't), and keeps a narrow reporter's notebook on his dashboard at all times. When I meet him, at Cafe Luna in Beverly, a Bic pen hangs from the neck of his sweatshirt. But he says he has no aspirations to be a bona fide member of the media. Been there, done that: for about 30 years, he authored Cork's Corner, a weekly entertainment column for the Southwest Messenger newspapers. Six years ago he started Opine, another column for the same chain with a decidedly political bent. He quit both last year, he says, after locking horns with the conservative management. He understands how hard it must be to work for a daily. "Dennis Byrne is up to four a week," says Corcoran, "and that's why he writes such vanilla stuff."
Still, Byrne can get to him. And once, he says proudly, he managed to get to Byrne. "I was up in arms over this term partial-birth abortion," he recalls. "I received information from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and there is no such term. It isn't taught in medical school, it isn't in the medical lexicon, and you can't find it in any medical textbook. So anyway I took on Byrne because he kept writing it and writing it and writing it, and I said, 'You must be the laughingstock of the medical world because you keep using this term and the doctors don't consider it a legitimate term.'" Corcoran says Byrne scrawled a huffy message on the letter and faxed it back to him. Byrne says he doesn't remember the incident, but he remembers Corcoran. "I'm glad to give him a purpose in life," he says.
Cafe Luna is Corcoran's favorite haunt. He goes there to browse its rack of international publications and engage in political debate with fellow patrons, who include a university lecturer, a TV journalist, and a former cop. But often when he has a letter in print, Corcoran sits alone. "I think people feel if they're seen talking to me it will seem like they go along with my views," he says. "And my views are in complete contrast to a lot of views in this neighborhood."
Corcoran's favorite topics are the weighty ones, like welfare cuts ("The result will be many former welfare recipients left homeless and without food"), reproductive rights ("Why don't [pro-lifers] take their money and support the babies they insist on being brought into the world?"), arts funding ("The pittance the NEA receives is minuscule"), and mental illness ("It should be covered by insurance companies as if it were any other illness"). He nearly always comes to the defense of President Clinton and believes the controversies that plague him are nonsense. "What's next," he wrote in a 1996 letter to the Tribune, "Chelseagate? Socksgate?"
But on the subject of gays in the military, a personal experience has led Corcoran away from the liberal party line. Gays should be kept from the military, he argued in a 1992 letter to the Tribune, because when he was in the army, stationed in Virginia during the Korean war, he was propositioned by a superior. He said no and was subsequently denied a promotion, whereas a "private who had become 'friends' with the major was suddenly promoted to staff sergeant and was kept off all future levies to Korea. I still wonder how many other GIs the major approached did what I did, but were not as fortunate as me and ended up among the killed or wounded."
Midway through our conversation, which has come to include cafe owner Linda Cooper, a young woman spots Corcoran from across the room and tells him she liked his most recent letter in the Beverly Review, in which he claimed that the removal of the neighborhood's basketball rims was a "blatant and fatuous display of racism" intended to prevent "minority children from using the outdoor basketball courts." Before he wrote, Corcoran drove past every park and school in the Beverly area searching for hoops. "I couldn't find a single one," he says. "They've taken them all down because of the changing neighborhood." Here Cooper interjects: though she's actively in favor of multiculturalism, she thinks it had more to do with the noise.
Corcoran doesn't restrict his letter writing to things that irritate him. He likes to write about sports, enjoys jaunty wordplay, and delights in finding the absurd in current events. "After reading...about the litany of sex scandals that have rocked our military," he wrote to the Tribune, "I would suggest the Defense Department consider commissioning a new decoration: the Fig Leaf Cluster."
Corcoran wasn't born a liberal. The only child of a homemaker and the vice president of a large trucking company, he grew up on the south side in an upper-middle-class family. He doesn't remember his parents or teachers encouraging him to read newspapers, and can't recall ever seeing his parents pick up any of the four Chicago dailies that came to their home. But at 12, Corcoran became engrossed by World War II coverage and would devour those papers one by one, cutting out all the articles pertaining to the war. He says his interest was as much in the way the papers presented the information as in the information itself. "I read them always with the thought in mind, why is it written this way, why is this important? I was always analyzing what newspapers were writing." Somewhere in a closet, he says, he still has a scrapbook of the clippings.
His father and other family members identified themselves as Republicans. Occasionally he'd talk politics with his uncles, who labeled him "progressive" for his "crazy ideas." By the time Corcoran was old enough to vote, though, he too was a Republican. After his stint in the army, he went to LA, where he worked as a "glorified usher" at CBS and took college classes in journalism. But when the network offered him a promotion, it was to its public-relations department. He stayed in California a few more years and then returned to Chicago to work for a private PR firm.
Corcoran didn't think much about politics back then. He didn't even blink when he found out that the woman he was falling in love with belonged to a family of active Democrats, or that her father was an old Bridgeport crony of Richard J. Daley.
Soon after he and Lois married, Corcoran was offered double his salary to return to Hollywood. He jumped at the chance. There his relationship with newspapers took a strange turn: part of his job was to feed journalists lies about his celebrity clients--anything that would attract publicity. "We'd manufacture stories," he admits, laughing. "None of them were true." If a would-be starlet called him up, furious about allusions to an affair she was supposedly having with a famous married actor twice her age, Corcoran might tell her, "Five miles outside San Bernardino, nobody knew who you were. Be grateful."
But Corcoran eventually tired of the game and moved his wife and twin sons back to Chicago, where he started his own firm. It wasn't until many years later, when he started writing his columns, that he took politics seriously. But his true political awakening coincided with the rise of the religious right, the "hate mongering" of the 1992 elections, and the near-death of one of his sons, who'd had a mysterious seizure and fallen into a coma that would last nearly a year. "In that time I suddenly saw a lot," he says. "I saw different things--a lot of people in unfortunate circumstances--and I realized there was a need for government to help people when those people can't help themselves. I really started to change my whole outlook on life." He also started to pay more attention to the Republican agenda. "I started to listen and look at what these people were saying and I started to read more and I really saw I was on the wrong side of the fence," he says.
Suddenly he had strong beliefs--and the desire to share them. Since then, by his own estimate, he's written some 1,500 letters. He wants to reach people who might be voting blindly, as he once did. "If one person out there reads what I say and says I've got a good point, then I feel like I've accomplished something," he says. "Hopefully I can make somebody who is in the middle or leaning to the right say, Maybe I should look at this from another point of view."
Lois, who in her own local column in the 70s interviewed politicians' wives, shares his enthusiasm for speaking out. She seldom writes letters of her own, but when she does they can be biting. People recently published one that likened Riverdance dancing to Nazi storm-trooping. "You're always saying I'm getting us into trouble," Corcoran teased her.
In fact, the hate mail Corcoran has received over the years has sent shivers down Lois's spine. "He's had a lot of anonymous letters calling him names and making indirect threats," she says. "When he took on the Christian Coalition he got these scary letters, and I said, 'We're in the phone book and anyone can find us, and some of these people are very rabid.'"
Last year, an anonymous foe decided Corcoran needed a right-wing education and signed him up for subscriptions to American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and the National Review. Corcoran also started receiving propagandist flyers on which passages had been underlined in different colors, and notes--"Hey liberal, you oughta read this"--had been jotted in the margins. He also got six CDs and a record-club invoice that listed his listening choice as heavy metal. The Bradford Exchange sent him flowered collectible plates. "I was scared because this big box came," Corcoran recalls. "I thought it was going to blow up."
It took Corcoran many months to straighten out the billing fiascoes. He went to the postal service to inquire about filing a complaint, but before he did the harassment suddenly stopped.
At Cafe Luna Corcoran tells me that since the death of Princess Diana he's sent out so many letters arguing the distinction between the paparazzi and legitimate photojournalists that he's thinking of scaling back his letter-writing efforts in the coming days. "I was going to do something on Stephen Chapman's G.I. Jane thing," he says, referring to an op-ed piece in the Tribune. "I was so disgusted with that because he goes into that whole crazy thing, this whole upper body strength thing, and of course I was in the service and I know during the Korean war there were guys who couldn't do all this stuff, but that doesn't make a difference. They needed bodies in Korea. So that whole argument about upper body strength and she could never have been a navy SEAL and so forth and so on is just stupid. And I saved it for about a week and I just threw it away this morning."
Corcoran pauses a moment. "When I say threw it away, I mean put it aside. I can still go back to it." He pauses another moment. "Maybe today I will. I'll go home and say Chapman's all wet." A sudden look of self-satisfaction washes over his face, and he says, "It's a good metaphor. Navy SEALs. All wet. I'll use that."
Somebody once told Daniel John Sobieski that the worst thing in life was to be ignored, and he took the message to heart. "I like to wake up in the morning knowing that I have a chance every day to be published everywhere," he says.
Sobieski lives on a street of perfectly manicured lawns in Garfield Ridge, near Midway Airport. He opens the door before I have a chance to knock. His wife, Lily, shakes my hand, and Sobieski tells her that I'm going to give him another 15 minutes of fame.
Over the years, he's had his 15 minutes many times. In the late 70s and early 80s, he appeared as a guest editorialist on most of the local TV news stations. In 1986 he made an unsuccessful run for Congress at the urging of "a local ward guy," who was impressed by Sobieski's letters to editors. Among his prized possessions are photos of himself campaigning, in various stages of awe, with George Bush, Pat Buchanan, Phil Gramm, Jack Kemp, Jim Thompson, and Jim Edgar. He's had some minutes of infamy, too: His oft-expressed enthusiasm for biotechnology was ridiculed in a cartoon widely circulated by local environmentalists: Sobieski was depicted as part man and part insect, the result of consuming too much milk from hormone-injected cows and too many genetically altered tomatoes.
"If they understand what I'm saying and they get mad about it then that's fine," says Sobieski of his critics. "At least I struck a nerve, and I usually judge the effectiveness of what I write by the decibel level of the response."
In 1995, another frequent letter writer accused him of plagiarizing in an opinion piece for the Sun-Times. Sobieski's piece, in favor of the right to carry concealed firearms, bore almost identical passages to an article by Marion Hammer, now president of the National Rifle Association, that had previously appeared in American Rifleman and American Hunter. The Sun-Times printed an apology by Sobieski for failing to credit American Rifleman as a source, but Sobieski shrugs off the incident. "Part of the problem is that a lot of times the newspapers don't give you the space for footnotes and bibliography," he says. "You can go back and look at everything I've written and there are just attributions up the wazoo. But you don't really have a lot of space sometimes to put that stuff in."
In person Sobieski is surprisingly soft-spoken. He leads me upstairs to his study, which I'm told has been cleaned spotless by Lily in anticipation of my arrival. "Almost everything I've written I've written in this room," he says.
Sobieski has lived in this house since he was six years old, and remnants of his boyhood, such as models of battleships and military aircraft, are placed strategically about what used to be his bedroom. The shelves are lined with bound volumes of Human Events and U.S. News & World Report dating back to the early 70s and books--many ordered from a conservative book club--on politics, the military, and history. His files of newspaper clippings cover a vast range of subjects, including auto safety, the NEA, Susan McDougal, public broadcasting, OSHA, clean water, food stamps, administration scandals, and Cuba.
Lily peeks up from a copy of the Star to tell me about how Sobieski's newspapers drove her mad in the early days of their marriage. "It took me three years to clean this room," she says of the family room, which is connected to Sobieski's study and which used to be a storage space. "I had to bring my cousin and my brother to help."
Sobieski stopped having newspapers delivered to his home soon after he married Lily. She complained that every 30 seconds a paper boy was at the door asking for money and that the newspapers piling up on the brand-new French-provincial furniture would surely bleed onto the fabric. Now Sobieski buys newspapers at the newsstand in his office building and clips important articles.
He and Lily spend a lot of time at home. They rarely socialize. He loves chess--there are no fewer than six boards in his study--but he plays only by mail, with partners who advertise in chess magazines. When he's not writing letters or reading, he and Lily watch news shows or sports. He also likes to listen to music, and enjoys everything from country to heavy metal. "The misconception about conservatives is that we're fuddy-duddies. We're cool," he explains. "We just think more logically than everyone else."
Later, I ask Sobieski if he shares Lily's enthusiasm for the Star, and he tells me, "I don't subscribe to the bias against tabloid journalism. You can get some fascinating information from nontraditional sources." Thanks to the Star, for example, Sobieski was able to delight in Dick Morris's downfall. A varied news intake, he says, brightly illuminates the shortcomings of the mainstream media.
For instance, he says, when a local TV reporter covered a recent speech by Jimmy Carter, "she said he said this hubbub about political fund-raising was hurting the nation and that both sides were muddying the waters and essentially that's all she said. But I had seen clips of the actual speech, and he also called for an independent prosecutor. This was a very critical piece of information that was important for people to know."
Sobieski found himself screaming at the television, and when that happens, he says, he knows it's time to write a letter. "Part of the reason I write letters is to give people information that they won't get otherwise," he says. If a particular topic is hot, he has no qualms about sending out the same letter to numerous publications. He might disregard a newspaper's expectation of exclusivity, but he increases his chances of getting heard.
Sobieski gets so attached to his letter ideas that when he drops them, he says, he feels as if he's "abandoning some children. In any given week I may have ten things I want to respond to," he explains. "And I can't do it. I really get frustrated trying to pick and choose what subjects are the ones I want to hit. Some days I want to send a letter to the Sun-Times, but do I want to send a letter responding to yesterday's editorial or do I want to send a letter I've been putting together about a certain subject that's ripe and ready to go out?" Only occasionally does he worry how other people react to his letters--like when he went on a job interview and the receptionist asked if he was the guy who wrote them. "I wasn't sure if I should say yeah because I didn't know the political views of the guy who was going to be interviewing me," he says.
Sobieski's phone number is unlisted, but he says there have been times when people in his community have shown up at his door, wanting to chat about something he's written. "It's a very Democratic area," he says, "but it's not like I'm in the People's Republic of Massachusetts or something. My barber reads my stuff, and I put my head into his hands with a pair of sharp scissors. The natives are friendly."
When Sobieski was 14, his mother sent a school essay he'd written on the Berlin Wall to the Southwest News-Herald, where it was published as a letter. The joy of seeing his name in print was an unexpected kick, and he began committing more and more of his thoughts to paper.
Though his mother would proudly type and mail his letters, she had only a superficial interest in politics herself. And his father just thought all politicians were crooks. An only child, Sobieski says he learned to form opinions without weighing them against the ridicule or acceptance of others. By his own admission, he was something of a curiosity at Thomas Kelly High School. He shunned fads and avoided crowds. He carried a briefcase and played chess. In 1964, he joined the Young Americans for Freedom and plastered a Goldwater bumper sticker on the briefcase.
When he was a college freshman at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a letter he wrote to the Daily News's Young Chicago Page won him a $25 U.S. savings bond and a prophetic note from an editor that said, "We hope your thoughtful interest in current affairs continues through a fruitful life."
After college Sobieski found work at a chemical company, in the computer department. He met Lily when she began working for him as a keypunch operator. She was his main comfort when his parents died 19 months apart. They married in 1977, but for a moment it looked like the wedding wouldn't happen. "We had a big argument about Gerald Ford," he explains. He's always been a Reagan man.
Even most of Sobieski's early letters were political. But, as a glance at his scrapbooks shows, he wasn't beyond writing fluff. He'd submit anything--even rhymes about annoying salesmen--just to get his name in the paper. These days, he's more selective. "I will not write about things that do not affect the future of Western civilization just to see my name in print," he says. Among his favorite subjects are environmentalists ("the scare everyone to death movement"), national defense, foreign policy, liberals who contradict themselves, taxing and spending, and the Clinton administration scandals. He has written that Tiger Woods's triumph "exposes the fraud of affirmative action," that the NEA is "about the cultural elites soaking the rest of us rubes," and that the Family and Medical Leave Act is "yuppie welfare." In a 1993 letter to the Tribune, he implied that the Environmental Protection Agency had ulterior motives in notifying the public of contaminants: "With every substance the EPA classifies as cancer-causing, the agency increases its budget, gains power and prestige and opens new vistas for regulatory activities."
Of course, he still gets a thrill when he opens the paper and sees one of his letters inside. "It's a little like sports," he says. "When the Chicago Bears score a touchdown they dance around in the end zone. It's kind of the way I feel when I open the paper and see my letter ran."
Corcoran and Sobieski have never met, but they have strong opinions of each other. Some of those opinions make their differences seem a little less pronounced.
"Guys like Corcoran," says Sobieski, "I call them off-the-top-of-their-head types. They're the type that says, 'My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts.' And maybe I'm confusing them with the facts, I don't know. I'd like to think so."
"I get attacked constantly by people like him," Corcoran says. "They make statements that are without fact. That's what drives me crazy about the right wing."
Occasionally the two engage in a public spat that might go on forever if an editor didn't nip it in the bud. When Corcoran recently responded to a Sobieski letter calling for Janet Reno to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton's political fund-raising efforts, his references to Sobieski were edited out.
"I don't run my word processor just to go after him," Corcoran says. "It has to be something I feel very strongly about and something I feel he's very wrong about--which is almost everything he writes. When I feel I've got facts or information to dispute what he's saying, I really take him on."
Their most extended volley took place earlier this year in the Reader. Sobieski responded to an article about Food Lion's lawsuit against ABC-TV, which had aired an undercover investigation of the chain's food-handling practices. He took the view that ABC reporters had staged the unsanitary conditions themselves, in an attempt to boost ratings. Corcoran wrote in to say that Sobieski's letter was "typical of the defense he consistently musters for corporate America," and accused Sobieski of mindlessly repeating what he'd heard on the "right-wing Rupert Murdoch-owned" Fox news, which had aired parts of the investigation that had been edited out of the undercover report.
Sobieski took the bait and made light of what he believes is the common perception by liberals: that outspoken conservatives "are all getting faxes from Rush Limbaugh" or are otherwise programmed about what to think and say.
"Obviously Mr. Corcoran possesses psychic powers that Dionne Warwick could put to good use," he wrote. "Either that, or he has been peeping in my window. Actually, I get my information from a microtransmitter planted in my frontal lobe at birth by the Christian Coalition."
Corcoran fired back, calling Sobieski's response "both laughable and pathetic" and charging that he "resorted to the defense every conservative uses when trapped--sarcasm and ad hominem remarks." Corcoran challenged him again: "Answer the question, Mr. Sobieski."
When weeks passed and no letter from Sobieski appeared, Corcoran began to feel like a boxer whose opponent was down for the count. "He had nothing to come back with," Corcoran says, pleased with himself. "What was he going to say?"
Turns out Sobieski had a lot to say, but Reader editors had grown tired of the increasingly personal debate, and his letter never made it into print. In detail, he described ABC footage and quotes from other publications and documents to substantiate his points. Finally, he wrote, "I hate to disappoint Mr. Corcoran, but the trial transcripts and the film footage won't go away, no matter how inconvenient he finds them. Facts are stubborn things."
Whatever their criticisms, they just may be each other's most dedicated reader. "He's a great stimulus," Sobieski admits. "When I write letters, I write in response to something. I look for a hook--something that's not right. I'll always read his letters. He'll give you a good hook."
"Oh, I love to see his letters," Corcoran says. "They're fodder." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill Corcoran/ Daniel John Sobieski photos by Randy Tunnell.