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Requiem for a Heavyweight/Steyn's Blunt Instrument


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By Michael Miner

Requiem for a Heavyweight

The affectionate excerpts published in the Tribune last week don't even hint at the hard edge to Richard Ciccone's new biography, Royko: A Life in Print. The 13th chapter begins with this flat statement: "On any given day, Mike Royko could find someone to hate. To his friends and family it seemed incongruous that someone who could cry watching Fred Astaire dance could spew so much venom at almost anyone he perceived as an enemy. Throughout his career Royko went out of his way to demean and attack almost anyone who tried to do what he did in print."

But Royko is, ultimately, a kind book, and instead of plunging on into his subject's darkest recesses, Ciccone steps back from the brink. He segues from hates to feuds to anecdotes, regaling us with stories of Royko with Ben Bentley, Pops Panczko, and Charles O. Finley and introducing the woman who will become Royko's second wife. By the end of chapter 13 Ciccone has forgotten how he began it.

Royko is a biography that can be loosely compared to Carlos Baker's biography of Ernest Hemingway. Much more can be said about a great American writer now that someone has pulled the life together and put it out there. Ciccone's done a terrific job of laying out the facts, many of them grim. Royko's father beat his mother. He was stashed for a stretch at Montefiore, a reform school that bred hoods. Nothing he tried, not even Antabuse, licked booze, his life's great curse, and he was not a gentle drunk. To Ciccone's credit, it isn't obvious at the end of his book that he even liked Royko, but he says he did.

Some of Royko's friends are remembering him by publishing collections of his greatest columns--there have been two so far. Ciccone gives us an idea of why they liked him and what they liked him despite. He describes meeting him for the first time at Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977, when Royko still wrote for his beloved Daily News. "You know Dick Ciccone?" said someone making the introductions in a Washington bar. "He's a greaseball from the Tribune. Probably connected with the mob," Royko replied. Royko despised the Tribune then. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, seven years later that's where he worked.

Ciccone believes Royko never looked back once he crossed the street, but that's a Tribune man talking. I'd like to think he did. When the Daily News folded in 1978 Royko shifted to the Sun-Times down the hall; when Murdoch bought the Sun-Times six years later Royko became a sort of folk hero by thumbing his nose at him and bolting. He'd have been a different sort of hero if he'd stayed and used his column to make his new owner's life miserable, and he dropped a notch in the eyes of colleagues he'd abandoned.

So he spent the last 13 years of his career and his life at a paper where he didn't want to be. "Royko, despite his celebrity, his success, and his moments of arrogance, was shy," Ciccone writes. "Royko also hated mornings. Some mornings he was hungover. Every morning he was facing the demon of the column. As a result, Royko made few friends at the Tribune." A lot of people there wrote him off as a jerk.

The "regular guy," Ciccone tells us, was a "sweet person." But the column ruled his life. "Everything else had to come second," his friend Hanke Gratteau told Ciccone. "The family had to come second. His health had to come second." The Richard J. Daley era was an astonishing time in Chicago's history, and there's no way back to it that doesn't go through those columns. Rereading them for the book, Ciccone discovered something that he hadn't quite recognized before: "He really was a genius."

There's an elegiac quality to the book. Ciccone carefully places Royko in his time, and he explains that Royko was young in an era when newsrooms were full of roisterers who hit the bars after work and were strangers to their children. Ciccone was young then too. The demons Royko couldn't lick--smoking and drinking--were everybody's demons. "The 60s and 70s were the last great era of newspapers as the dominant information provider," Ciccone tells me, and reporters had an inflated idea of themselves as soldiers on the front lines of truth. The news itself was extraordinary. There were hot wars and cold wars and civil rights revolutions. Presidents didn't simply leave office--they were assassinated or toppled. "There was a major story going on at all times," says Ciccone, "and you turn to Royko and he was dealing with some very interesting aspects of it. Other times he was somewhere else with some wonderful change of pace." He never beat anything into the ground. "At one point in his career," says Ciccone, "he had a rule that you never did more than three columns on any subject. Ever. If you're going to write about a horse that got loose in the middle of City Hall, you might write two columns about it, but that was it."

Even about the first Mayor Daley? "It's amazing how few columns Royko wrote about Daley," says Ciccone. "But when he did, they were memorable."

Ciccone suggests the times passed Royko by. He explains that Royko flayed Richard J. alive because "he was a young man with liberal attitudes and he thought the old man ran a racist city." He gave Richard M. a pass because by that time "much had changed. He knew that Richard M. was in no way the almost folkloric figure his father was. And you don't have all those people I stuck in the book, the people he lampooned. You don't have Ed Quigley. You don't have Tom Keane. Politicians were still--in the 60s and a little in the 70s--our celebrities. Now Dennis Rodman's become our celebrity.

"Think back to Henry Kissinger as secretary of state, compared to Madeleine Albright. Kissinger was a national figure. He was on the front page every day. You could ask ten people who our secretary of the interior is, and they wouldn't have a clue. People say Royko slowed down, but he understood that. He knew nobody wanted to read about George Bush's treasury secretary--who was it, Jim Baker? We were tired of that. By the 80s, do you know what people were fascinated with and he spent a lot of time writing about? All those television evangelicals. I think part of Royko's genius was his ability to pick his subjects."

This is all true. But if keeping up with what now fascinated people is what Royko was doing, in the effort he left a piece of himself behind. When John Kass inherited Royko's space on page three he began to write the stories Royko used to. Our new Mayor Daley isn't folkloric, but he isn't above criticism either. Ciccone writes that Royko endorsed Daley and put up pictures of himself and the mayor in his new suburban home. Kass took Daley on. Holding the mayor's feet to the fire was to Kass a part of the job description.

Ciccone thinks Royko wanted to retire and intended to retire, though he never did. He wishes Royko had quit "in 1992 or something," before things turned bad. There was a just-so quality to Royko's columns when he was great, an infallible sense of form that shaped his wit and anger and morality. Nothing was ever weighted too lightly or too heavily. He wrote with the irony of nuance. But in the 90s his touch began to fail him.

In 1996 Mexican-Americans insulted by a column that didn't work demonstrated outside the Tribune Tower. Pat Buchanan was nominally his target, but if irony was intended when Royko wrote "There is no reason for Mexico to be such a mess except that it is run by Mexicans," he alone saw it. Ciccone doesn't mention that 14 Hispanic editorial employees led by the Tribune's foreign editor signed a letter of protest that said, "Sadly, our colleague repeatedly has crossed the line between legitimate political satire and ugly racial and ethnic slurs." The Tribune carried an editorial that, after a fashion, apologized.

The last time I talked to Royko--a few months before he died--it was about a column of the kind he'd made his specialty, on a little guy being chewed up by the system. In this case the system was represented by the Illinois Hate Crime Act, which Royko had good reasons for considering bad law. The little guy was a mope who'd made a drunken call one night to a Jewish lawyer he'd just seen advertising on TV, leaving a message that called him "one fuckin' Jewish parasite" and worse.

Somehow in the telling, the mope became the victim and the lawyer, who'd sued for damages, the perpetrator. The nuances got laid in wrong. The Tribune wound up running a letter ripping Royko from the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, and I had to tell him that the staff attorney who wrote it was family. She was the daughter of the Daily News's foreign editor back in the good old days.

Royko just sounded discouraged that day. But when he died of an aneurysm at the age of 64, the tributes poured in and it was like the 90s had never happened.

"Nobody walks up to the person who's older and tells them how wonderful and needed they are," says Ciccone. "Royko more than most of us certainly needed that kind of thing."

Steyn's Blunt Instrument

Mark Steyn is Mike Royko's inferior as a columnist in every way that matters. Royko wrote with his soul. I'm still looking for Steyn's. But I give Steyn this--he's clever. Cleverness seems to pretty much be the point. Unlike Royko late in life, Steyn knows just how to offend people. He knows how to set things up so that when you complain it's not his problem, it's yours.

Steyn's home paper is Canada's National Post, which, like the Sun-Times, is owned by Hollinger International. Sometimes his columns were toned down when they reached Chicago, and sometimes they were trimmed. And last winter when a column on Jesse Jackson didn't run at all, Steyn got steamed and held himself out of the Sun-Times for a couple of months. This spring Barbara Amiel stepped in. She's the editorial head of the Hollinger papers and the wife of Conrad Black, who's Hollinger's chairman, and she ordered the Sun-Times to run Steyn's columns as written.

So here's Steyn on Oklahoma City: "For example, 'Islamic fundamentalists' and 'men of Middle Eastern appearance' aren't necessarily the same thing. In Oklahoma, most of the Muslims are black and most of the Arabs are Christian. A lardbutt in a Second Amendment T-shirt I met in a sports bar told me that, and his 'sources' proved rather better than those of [ABC's] Mr. McWethy. Lori, our waitress, marvelled at his expertise, having previously bought into the networks' killer-towelheads-in-the-heartland routine."

And here he is on the new movie Pearl Harbor: "On a Hawaii with no Hawaiians, anonymous Japs bomb cardboard Yanks. Who cares? Dec. 7, 1941, is a day that will live in infamy, but in this film it doesn't live at all....(Incidentally, I understand the term 'Japs' distresses some people. But the film itself uses it, one of its rare nods to period detail. I would not apply it to present-day Japanese citizens, any more than I would call today's Germans 'the Hun' or 'Krauts.' But, in its context, it is the correct word.)"

So certain of that is Steyn that he repeats it. "The Japs fought a filthy war whose depravities they've never been made to confront," he says in conclusion. "It does 'em good to be reminded every so often."

Contract talks are coming later this year between Hollinger and the Sun-Times's unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and the guild has chosen Steyn as the grounds for a preliminary skirmish. This week it posted a memo on its newsroom bulletin board asserting its duty to speak out "when columnists help to create an atmosphere of intolerance, hate and hostility.

"Mark Steyn, Hollinger's star right-winger, has helped to create such an atmosphere in two recent columns." The memo listed his offenses: "lardbutt man," "killer-towelheads," and "Japs"--the use of which, according to the guild's memo, "is akin to spitting in the face of our readers and staff, including those who are Japanese Americans.

"What makes the matter worse," said the guild, "is that our copy editing staff has attempted to rein in Steyn language, but has been given the word to keep their hands off of his column, even if it uses language that is not just offensive, but downright racist."

The guild fails to appreciate Steyn's artistry. Sometimes the wrong word is the only right word, and Steyn undoubtedly would say that's why he uses it. Killer towelheads? A phrase precisely conveying the virulence of popular prejudice. Japs? The mot juste to plunge us back in time. Steyn walks the fine line between vivid exactitude and gratuitous insult, and it might be he walks it to taunt us. But the line is real.

If the guild wanted to accuse Steyn of glib sterility, it would be harder to defend him.

News Bite

You never know where your next big story is coming from. Tuesday's Sun-Times carried a page-one story about Oprah Winfrey buying a 42-acre estate in California for $50 million. Where did the Sun-Times find this news? They found it on page 33 of their Monday paper, where the very same information was reported as an entertainment brief.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando/photo/Jon Randolph.

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